Just before the outbreak of the second world war a discovery was made in a riverside field at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. It was an immense buried boat, dating from the 7th century, and it yielded gilded treasure after gilded treasure, thereby wholly changing our understanding of the Dark Ages. ‘They weren’t dark… by Jupiter!’ as one archaeologist puts it here. It is a fascinating story that could have been told as a full-on thriller. But instead the film employs a delicious, graceful restraint, paying as much attention to deeply buried feeling as to what’s buried deeply in the earth. It’s remarkably moving. By Jupiter, I even cried by the end.
The film is directed by Simon Stone with a screenplay by Moira Buffini from the 2007 fact-based novel by John Preston. (True characters, true events, and lashings of poetic licence.) The landowner at Sutton Hoo is Mrs Edith Pretty, played sublimely by Carey Mulligan. Edith is a wealthy widow who has always been intrigued by the ‘mounds’ on her land, and convinced that something lies beneath. She calls upon Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes), a local man known for excavating, to start digging. Brown can’t call himself an archaeologist, as he left school at 12 and is self-taught. But he is so expert that he can smell the change in any soil. Fiennes, who deploys a heavy Suffolk accent, and wears a flat cap, may initially put you in mind of Paul Whitehouse in the Ted and Ralph sketches but you will quickly move on from that thankfully. Meanwhile, the experts at Ipswich Museum are sniffy about the project at Sutton Hoo as they’re excavating a Roman villa that’s ‘far bigger than your venture’.