This is a gentle film, taking us back to pre-second-world-war Britain – and what an attractive place that seems to be compared to Covid-driven lockdown UK. Young director Simon Stone has (almost faithfully) recorded the tale of the discovery of the famed Sutton Hoo burial site, the centrepiece being a Saxon ship containing fabulous gold masks and funerary ornaments. Ralph Fiennes charmingly plays an employee of Ipswich Museum who, as a local man, is an expert on Suffolk soil structures. He is taken on by local landlady Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), at a loose end having lost her husband and with war looming, to excavate the fascinating mounds on her estate.
There is no real dramatic arch, just a predictable story of a dig, the various characters and their relationships with each other, bad weather, all set against the rolling Suffolk landscape. In the first half of the movie one is tempted to predict a romance between Edith and Basil, but that doesn’t materialise, instead (and perhaps for box office reasons) the romance interest shifts to Lily James who has a thing for Edith’s nephew (not a real character) although she and her archaeologist husband (Ben Chaplin) did exist. It’s a bit of a strain on credibility.
Fiennes is convincing as Basil Brown, with his authentic, comforting burr, peerless as he was brought up in the area; Mulligan is also good, if a bit glam for Edith (in truth Edith Pretty was several years older than Basil Brown). Light relief is provided by her delightful young son Robert (Archie Barnes) who sees Brown as a father figure. All in all a very British movie, released at a time when we need convincing that Britain is worth fighting for.