LFF 2020 ‘Ammonite’ Review: Stark, Beautiful, Familiar

Underappreciated palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) works in isolation on the stony beaches of southern England. She lives alone with her elderly mother for whom she cares, whilst they both run a shop selling fossils. But far away from this dreary landscape her reputation is growing. A young man comes to work with her, and ends up leaving his ailing wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in her care. Together they discover a new enthusiasm for the work, and a new passion for each other.

God’s Own Country director Francis Lee has created another beautiful and underplayed romance. There’s a great elegance to the way in which Winslet and Ronan wordlessly bond. The dialogue is sparse, with greater meaning found in gestures and physical closeness. Winslet is fantastic as the world weary academic woman who is sick of being ignored but too exhausted to rile against the world and it’s injustices. She carries a horrible burden of experience and it counters Saoirse Ronan’s fragile naivety perfectly. Her quiet desperation and yearning is perfectly precise. The chemistry between them is very affecting.

Lee is wonderful at portraying the small details and little actions that create a full impression of a life. The work undertaken by Anning and her mother is intricate and involving. By building this small seaside town out of textures that are vivid and relatable he creates a small world that has a real inner life. There’s a great feeling that Anning truly has spent years of her life in this place. This extends to the relationship between the two leads which is also built out of small moments and the warmth of a routine.

The film can though be a little cliched. James Mcardle is a very much the archetypal stuffy Victorian man who views intimacy with suspicion and wordlessly dominates his wife’s will. I don’t doubt the authenticity of this dynamic, but it’s a shame to see so little nuance in this character. Similarly visual metaphors can be a little on the nose. There’s a beautiful insect trapped under a jar in Charlotte’s bedroom and the two women reach the height of their intimacy after prizing a stubborn rock out of a cliff-face that was unreachable earlier in their relationship. It’s the job of the palaeontologist to scrape away the dirt and hard rock to expose the beauty beneath. The analogy is very clear.

More subtlety can be found in the nature of the relationship between the women though. It transpires that whilst bonding quietly over shared glances and tender moments, they had misunderstood one another. A clumsy gesture of love complicates their relationship and it becomes evident that more work and communication shall be required if they are to truly reach each other.

Ammonite recalls a number of other films. Anning’s character recalls the quiet despair of Olivia Coleman’s Queen Anne in The Favourite (her mother also collects porcelain animals to commemorate her lost children), the premise, setting and emotional content resemble A Portrait of a Lady on Fire and most distractingly the film resembles Lee’s previous work; God’s Own Country. The plot points are similar enough that I began to anticipate them before they occurred.

Francis Lee has created another striking and moving portrait of love in tough places. That is may not represent a fresh new direction for his talent, or a bold new cinematic vision is regrettable but only bespeaks the promise of his career. Here’s hoping he will put his considerable talents towards something a little different next time. For now, he has created a delicate and impassioned showcase for Winslet and Ronan’s impeccable talents.

Four Stars

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *