Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
United Kingdom, 2021. Netflix, Magnolia Mae Films, Clerkenwell Films. Screenplay by Moira Buffini, based on the novel by John Preston. Cinematography by Mike Eley. Produced by Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Murray Ferguson, Gabrielle Tana, Ellie Wood. Music by Stefan Gregory. Production Design by Maria Djurkovic. Costume Design by Alice Babidge. Film Editing by Jon Harris.
A thoughtful and absorbing drama about excavating hidden relics of the past which, in its narrative, does some excavating of its own, telling a story that has never been properly told before the novel by John Preston that this wonderful film is based on. Carey Mulligan has a perfect sense of entitled control as Edith Pretty, a widowed landowner of a giant estate in Suffolk who, in 1939, hires archaeological excavator Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to dig into the ancient mounds on her property that she has wanted to investigate for many years. Brown begins to shovel out dirt and makes an astonishing discovery, the remains of a buried ship that appears to be the grave site of an important figure, measuring ninety metres in length and the ghost of its form shockingly well preserved. Brown, who is not an educated archaeologist but a self-taught digger, is pushed aside by Cambridge archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott), who arrives with his own team (including estranged married couple Ben Chaplin and Lily James) and claims the discovery for the British museum. Pretty, who has been fiercely loyal to Brown’s efforts up to this point, must deal with a decline in her health and is unable to protect her new friend from being usurped and he, deciding he has no desire to be treated as a manservant at his own dig, abandons the project. He is eventually wooed back by Mulligan’s adolescent son Robert (Archie Barnes), with whom he has developed a paternal connection and who makes him realize that the discoveries of this dig are not something he’ll want to miss, witnessing as what would eventually come to be the richest store of treasure ever discovered in a British excavation are found in the dirt.
The drama continues with an inquest to determine the ownership of the Sutton Hoo riches as well as a wrapping up of outstanding issues between Pretty and Brown that, much to his disadvantage, were then buried for many years. The narrative threatens to pander to base audience demands by inventing a cousin for Mulligan, played by the dashing Johnny Flynn, who drums up a romance with lonely academic James to help cure her attachment to her sexphobic husband, but this subplot doesn’t ruin the haunting tone created by the film’s many intelligent layers of revelation. While war planes fly over their heads, characters unearth secrets of the past and the film does the same for Brown, giving him his due after decades of decades of snobbery and academic elitism have obscured it. Pretty, meanwhile, stands for the film’s main thematic conflict, the human desire to create permanence out of an existence that is anything but, finding in the mounds of earth on her land the legacy that helps her see her own mortality, and the the vulnerability of a world about to erupt in war, in a different light. Director Simon Stone indulges himself in a bit too much Terence Malicking, splaying a number of postcard-pretty images of the British countryside across a digital screen too happy to display them; the luxurious cinematography threatens to lend itself to tired cliches of prestige period pieces, but the moody skies and vast acres of verdant fields are a character in the story, woven into the sense of possibility and exploration that this tale is so richly steeped in.