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Review by Rich Cline |
dir Simon Stone
scr Moira Buffini
prd Gabrielle Tana, Ellie Wood, Murray Ferguson, Carolyn Marks Blackwood
with Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James, Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott, Archie Barnes, Monica Dolan, Eamon Farren, Paul Ready, Peter McDonald, Arsher Ali
release UK/US 29.Jan.21
21/UK Netflix 1h52
Is it streaming?
Based on a true story, this finely produced British period drama explores our connection with the distant past, tracing a landmark archaeological discovery that changed the understanding of history. Director Simon Stone maintains a strong sense of detail, grounding the narrative in the characters. And the film looks terrific, bristling with life and a strong sense of both the period and the importance of learning about our ancestors.
With war looming in 1939 Europe, young widow Edith (Mulligan) welcomes archaeologist Basil (Fiennes) to her vast estate in Suffolk to excavate some ancient mounds. She gathers a local team to help him, including her cheeky preteen son Robert (Barnes) and observant cousin Roy (Flynn). And as he excavates the site, Basil thinks this is much older than other ruins unearthed nearby. Indeed, it turns out to be a 7th century Anglo-Saxon king's burial site. So British Museum official Charles (Stott) seizes control of the dig, calling in experts Stuart and Peggy (Chaplin and James).
There is a continuous stream of wrinkles to the story, such as the fact that Edith has a fatal heart condition, while Basil is seen as a provincial commoner, so his important accomplishments are ignored by snooty officials. Most of these things add layers to the story, although some are distractions, such as the marital fractures between the independent Peggy and the fusty Stuart, signposting two kinds of trouble. But the most important thing here is that what's being unearthed is filling in an undocumented period in the historical record.
In keeping with the film's themes, the actors deliver superbly earthy performances. Mulligan brings an alert intelligence to the emotive Edith, facing her mortality while also taking in the perspective of centuries. She makes vivid connections with each character, especially Fiennes' straight-talking, unassuming Basil, a wonderfully delicate performance. Side roles add texture to each scene, including some romantic entanglements for James, Flynn and Chaplin, blustering entitlement for Stott, and a particularly lovely supportive turn by Dolan as Basil's wife.
Screenwriter Buffini tries to ramp things up with nicely understated moments of tension and even action, but it's the steady pace of the narrative that holds the interest, especially as the story explores how we are connected with history. "The past speaks," Basil says, as Edith notes how his work draws direct lines between us and our forebears. So if the film feels like a perhaps prettified version of real events, its underlying ideas give us something to chew on.
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© 2020 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall
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