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Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes star in Netflix drama The Dig.

Larry Horricks/The Associated Press

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  • The Dig
  • Directed by Simon Stone
  • Written by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by John Preston
  • Starring Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan and Lily James
  • Classification PG; 112 minutes
Critic’s pick

Last week, in its quarterly earnings report, the notoriously data-shy Netflix revealed what it says were its biggest movies of the fall. While the streaming giant released a bevy of prestige-level, auteur-helmed films last year – David Fincher’s Mank, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7, George C. Wolfe’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – subscribers preferred either popcorn (George Clooney’s Midnight Sky) or work that might charitably be called spit-shined TV movies (Holidate, The Christmas Chronicles 2, We Can Be Heroes).

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That’s all well and good, but it does make Netflix productions such as The Dig seem like that much more of an outlier. Here is a film that whisper-screams “traditional”: a period drama starring classically trained actors, focused on old-fashioned concepts such as love, honour and duty, and filmed with a dutiful sensibility I can only describe as conservative (these points aren’t intended as, ahem, digs).

But if Netflix is indeed aiming to be all things to all audiences all over the world, then I can understand why it decided to get behind The Dig. I don’t know how many subscribers actually interested in its mature story and top-level craft will be able to unearth it from their Holidate-choked queues, but here’s hoping some are willing to embark on the excavation.

The filmmakers wisely lean on the charms of Fiennes and Mulligan.

Larry Horricks/The Associated Press

Adapting John Preston’s 2007 novel, which very loosely dramatizes the real-life 1939 unearthing of two medieval cemeteries in Suffolk, England, The Dig starts off by positioning itself as a buttoned-up romance between lonely widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) and self-taught archeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes). After Edith hires Basil to start digging up her property in the hopes of uncovering, well, something, the two begin, ever so carefully, to build a relationship.

Interestingly, the story doesn’t go the expected route – not only because Basil is twice Edith’s age and married, but also because The Dig just isn’t that kind of movie. Instead, director Simon Stone and writer Moira Buffini, both of whom have as much experience in theatre as film, use Edith and Basil’s burgeoning friendship as a means to explore class and the patriarchy – basically, who is allowed to reap the rewards of another’s adventures in the muck. While that approach has the potential to produce an especially dry outing of Masterpiece Theatre, Stone and his team keep the story moving at a brisk pace and wisely rely on the supreme charms of Mulligan and Fiennes.

The film introduces an array of new characters in its second half, including a pair played by Johnny Flynn, left, and Lily James.

Larry Horricks/The Associated Press

Except, that is, once the second half of the film arrives. Suddenly, the filmmakers (incorrectly) decide that Edith and Basil aren’t quite interesting enough to sustain an entire feature and plunk down a whole other cast of characters into the story, including Edith’s flyboy cousin Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn) and newlywed archeologists Peggy Preston (Lily James) and Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin). It is not as if the new players are uninteresting or their performers underwhelming, it is only that their plights – Rory wants to fight Hitler, Peggy is suffering from a sexless marriage – feel far more familiar than whatever is happening between Edith and Basil.

Still, Stone and Buffini do manage to tie everything up neatly enough, along the way underlining the aching chasm that exists – not just in pre-Blitz England, but anywhere at any time – between what you want and what you can actually have. It’s a cinematic effort worth getting your hands dirty for.

The Dig is available to stream on Netflix starting Jan. 29

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In the interest of consistency, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s choice designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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