BFI LFF 2020: Ammonite (2020)

Francis Lee’s second feature after his stunning, award-winning debut with God’s Own Country is another queer love story, this time between two women in 1840s Lyme Regis, starring Kate Winslet and Saorse Ronan.

Cold Comfort

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

As fossil-hunter Mary Anning, Kate Winslett gives probably the performance of her career. Mary is a plain, middle-aged, brusque, plain-speaking, self-taught paleontologist scratching a meagre living scrabbling the beach and cliffs of the Jurassic coast for specimens to sell as souvenirs to tourists. She knows more about fossils than any male scientist yet she receives no public recognition for her work, even though her discoveries find a place in the British Museum. “All boys together” is her tart comment on the male privilege that hems her in. In fact, the film opens graphically with a woman on her hands and knees scrubbing the mosaic floor of the museum, her existence unnoticed and unacknowledged by the males bringing in one of Mary’s finds on a stretcher, a giant sea lizard fossil, to exhibit in a glass case.

However, one day scientist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes to Mary’s shop hoping to learn from her and she grudgingly agrees to tutor him. When he travels to attend a conference, he leaves his silent and sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, also good and fragile in a way we have not seen her before) under Mary’s care, in the hope that the sea air and having a new interest will restore her health. Charlotte is reluctant at first, but when she falls ill and Mary nurses her unstintingly, the two women become close and eventually lovers. As Charlott’s spirits and enthusiasm return, she becomes as lively and loving to Mary as a new puppy. The colour returns to her pale cheeks. Mary too changes, she thaws out of her emotional petrification and softens – even her gait and stance change, a tribute to Winslett’s skill.

Lee’s direction is visceral, suddenly inserting a central, explicit scene of passionate sexuality, but also throughout in cutaways to micro details that advance or augment the story: a magpie pecking an empty snail shell, a moth in a glass jar, or an ant crawling across a painting. But perhaps he has overthought the minutely researched period detail, so much so that you wonder if the close-up of a letter has the right stamp or whether cigarettes were invented then, and at times the atmospheric Foley seems overdone – there’s too much loud clattering of footsteps on bare wooden floorboards in the house where Mary lives with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones, with a cough that forebodes doom), the roaring of the sea, the clanging sounds of the harbour and bells toll and chime by the Thames in Victorian London. There’s a sense of trying too hard to create the period.

The sea and rough weather dominates though there is a sunny respite in a herbal garden with Fiona Shaw as a minor character, but a self-assured, elegant woman of means (key to her independence) who may have had a past relationship with Mary. Later, unfortunately, she has an unnecessary scene of exposition that is too on the nose.

The film is a love story of two women from different classes who find each other but discover they may not really understand what drives the other and cannot fit into each other’s life. It’s set in a context of all the unspoken tensions between the need for women to find fulfilment – or even just a role – either through motherhood or through a career, both of which may actually be impossible for women to achieve in the inherently sexist Victorian society they live in.

Inevitably, Ammonite will spark comparisons with Portrait of a Lady on Fire or The Piano. Lee’s film is a beautiful, thoughtful and engaging imagination of the hidden history of what might have happened to women who did exist, but somehow it doesn’t really take off in the way that the fictional characters in God’s Own Country do.

As an added bonus of the BFI London Film Festival, watch a specially recorded Q&A with director Francis Lee.

Ammonite screened as the closing film of the BFI London Film Festival in October 2020.

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