(director: Simon Stone; screenwriters: Moira Buffini/based on a 2007 novel by John Preston; cinematographer: Mike Eley; editor: Jon Harris; music: Stefan Gregory; cast: Carey Mulligan (Edith Pretty), Ralph Fienes (Basil Brown), Ken Stott (Charles Phillips), Monica Dolan (May Brown), Paul Ready (James Reid Moir), Peter McDonald (Guy Maynard), Archie Barnes (Robert), Johnny Flynn (Rory Lomax), Lily James (Peggy), Archie Barnes (Robert), Ben Chaplin (Stuart Piggott); Runtime: 112; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Ellie Wood/Murray Furguson/Gabrielle Tana/Carolyn Marks Blackwood; Netflix; 2021-UK)

“Great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In the Simon Stone (“The Daughter”) genteel directed and co-written drama, the noted theater director does a decent job in handling it as a drama. We get great performances from Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan,  gorgeous location shots of the English countryside and a nice history lesson. It’s based on the 2007 novel by John Preston (which is based on the 1938-39 discovery of the Anglo-Saxon site of the ancient grave of Sutton Hoo, where a burial ship in Suffolk was extracted). It’s written by Moira Buffini. The novel, even if telling a true story, sometimes plays with the facts.

The modest self-taught Basil Brown (Ralph Fienes), considered an amateur on archeological digs, is hired in 1939 by the prim and wealthy widow Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) to investigate the burial mounds on her estate when the prominent Brit museums refuse to investigate. On the largest mounds Basil discovers a ship from the 7th century (an 80’-long, wooden Anglo-Saxon ship) and figures there might also be a treasure trove nearby.

The government authorities take over the dig with the sighting of the ship. They are led by the haughty Charles Phillips (Ken Stott) of the British Museum, and his annoying underling Stuart Piggott (Ben Chaplin) and his timorous wife Peggy (Lily James). Phillips arrogantly pushes Basil and his local workers aside until Edith intervenes.  She insists that Basil be credited in the discovery and these establishment figures not freeze him out of perhaps the greatest find of medieval history made in the 20th century in England. Until recently Basil’s contribution was hardly noted in the documentation.

The dig is rushed because of the impending war, as what should be two years of work becomes one.

We meet Basil’s supportive wife May (Monica Dolan). And also meet the widow’s unruly young son Robert (Archie Barnes), who Basil makes a solid avuncular connection with.

A fictional element of the film supports a budding romance between Peggy (a real-life person, who was Preston’s aunt and the source of info for his book), and the fictional character Rory Lomax (Johnny Flynn), the fit young photographer cousin of Pretty’s whom she gets to help Basil on the dig. Lomax is of age for military service, who is thinking of joining the RAF. He’s dropped into the film so he can provide a little romance. I didn’t care for the addition, as it seemed like a clumsy attachment that was not needed.

The film’s strong points are: its photography is lush; the story is intriguing; its recreation scenes of the dig were enjoyable and its PBS style of delivery is a matter of taste as to whether you like it or not, and I liked it. Thereby the film should be immensely welcomed by those who love fun educational drama; while others, like me, who steer away usually from stodgy films, will nevertheless endorse it as a film worth checking out as a curio despite its lack of adventure as a drawback.