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Movie archaeologists have been presented as dynamic adventurers, such as Indiana Jones and Lara Croft. It is, therefore, refreshing to see an archaeologist who is quiet, subdued and very careful, played by that most diffident of English gents, Ralph Fiennes. Fiennes is Basil Brown, employed by Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan) in 1938 to excavate a mound on her Suffolk land, a mound that proves to be of historical significance. Director Simon Stone, working from Moira Buffini’s adaptation of John Preston’s novel, follows the characters at an intimate level, allowing us to appreciate the close bond that Basil and Edith, as well as Edith’s son Robert (Archie Barnes), share with the very earth that they interact with. This bond is contrasted with other attitudes to the artefacts, and also interwoven with confrontations that the characters make with serious illness, questions of sexuality and the approaching drums of war. The end result is an exquisite and melancholy love letter to the English countryside, that also meditates upon our relationships with time and with history.
A bike chase through London streets. A foot chase through a Hong Kong marina. A boat caught in a storm at sea. Various encounters with armed men. Puzzles to open doorways and collapsing caves. Movie set pieces or video game challenges? In the case of Tomb Raider, both, as Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) takes on these obstacles that play out much like stages to a video game, while director Roar Uthaug renders these sequences with visceral thrills and gritty heft. The combined efforts of director and star in relation to these sequences are the film’s major strengths, as the viewer can feel the impact and lurch of the action while Lara herself is engagingly human and vulnerable, never coming across as a cypher who can regenerate to try the level again. Vikander is a hugely likeable lead, combining convincing physicality with relatable naivety, traits that are balanced with resourcefulness and a talent for swift adaptation. Less compelling is her backstory, as writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons and Evan Daugherty give her a rather hackneyed daddy’s girl identity that threatens to overwhelm the potential for progressive gender representation. Nothing is made of the gender elements here: Lara’s agency and ability is not contrasted with that of her male counterparts and there is no romantic subplot. This is pleasing because, as in Rogue One, Wonder Woman, Atomic Blonde, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, a female protagonist of agency is presented as perfectly natural, rather than being made into a cause. Unlike those earlier films, Lara’s motivation is simply to find her father, while the film also fails an easy opportunity to pass the Bechdel Test. While both the action and the archaeology would earn a nod from Indiana Jones, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.