From psychopathic Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List, to Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and “M” in Bond, Ralph Fiennes refuses to be typecast.
Extending this range further, he plays quiet, somewhat downtrodden excavator Basil Brown, complete with a believable broad Suffolk accent.
Brown is employed to excavate burial mounds on land owned by widower Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who together with her space obsessed young son Robert (Archie Barnes) is looking for adventure and distraction. The year is 1939 on the eve of the declaration of war with Germany, not the best time to be digging up ancient burial sites, with the countries focus and resources re-directed towards the oncoming war effort.
Uncovering the ancient 6/7th Century burial site, as the earth mounds gradually reveal their secrets, is the easy part for Brown. Due to English strict social hierarchy, being self taught, with lack of formal qualifications and the disadvantage of not attending the “right schools”, puts Brown at odds with better connected archeologists laying claim to the site.
The screenplay is based on the book by John Preston which is a lightly fictionalized account of the real life story, with a smattering of artistic licence thrown in for good measure. Whilst in reality there was some initial friction between the more experienced archaeologist Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) and Brown, this quickly led to mutual respect, albeit played up for dramatic effect here.
Mulligan continues to impress in what is a difficult role, both stoic, passionate about the find and yet overlaid with a sense of sadness of what lays ahead for her and son Robert. Fiennes is almost unrecognizable, not so much in appearance, although the wardrobe dept have worked wonders, but in his mannerisms, deference and acceptance of a way of life about to change.
The three main characters are etched well and the evocation of that era, including the find itself are well detailed, all set against beautiful pastoral shots of the Suffolk landscape. However, it feels as if the director and screenplay fail to have enough faith in what is a great story, without the addition of a clumsy romance between young archeologist Peggy (Lily James) and square jawed, trainee RAF pilot Rory (Johnny Flynn).
This relationship is complicated by Peggy’s current married status, albeit fluid due to her husbands indifference (Ben Chaplin). Arguably, continued focus on the delicate platonic relationship between Brown and Pretty might have made for a grittier retelling. An opportunity missed, as the central story is strong enough to stand by itself, without adding a nod to contemporary issues.
True to life, the finds were bequeathed to the British Museum, which bearing in mind their priceless nature was an exceptional example of philanthropy. However, despite promises Brown remained a footnote in history, until a revisionist approach rightfully restored his central role in the find.
Overall a well acted story with beautiful cinematography, providing a solid couple of hours entertainment and encouraging research into the real Sutton Hoo find, freely available from many sources.
Streaming on Netflix