Review: Ammonite

Written and directed by Francis Lee, in 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever. Also starring: Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, Claire Rushbrook, Alec Secareanu and James McArdle.

A helpful thing to note when going into this film is that expecting a lesbian version of God’s Own Country is not beneficial to enjoying Ammonite, great filmmakers don’t simply tell the same story repetitively, they take their style and apply it to a variety of stories, which is what Lee has done here. The key element, and what makes this film so wonderful, is its patience, its delicate touch and subtlety, this is not a film about big booming dramatic moments, it’s about the sort of undeniable feelings that develop without you even really noticing. It starts out with the very simple yet meaningful scene of replacing the tag with Mary’s name upon the fossil she discovered, with a man’s and it so beautifully sets the tone for the story and Mary’s persona as an adult.

Before diving into the intricacies of Lee’s style, firstly Winslet and Ronan have to be discussed because the both of them give absolutely incredible performances. Winslet doesn’t always end up in stellar projects, even though her acting is a consistently high quality but when she gets the right role like in the lesser appreciated films The Dressmaker or Labor Day, she creates these terrific layered, complex characters that are mesmerizing to watch. That’s exactly what she does here with Mary, she’s cold and practical on the outside but lonely, regretful and kind on the inside, and the arrival of Charlotte (Ronan) brings her out of her shell in a journey that Winslet captures magnificently. It’s just as spectacular watching Ronan’s Charlotte transform throughout the film, having her start out so restrained and broken, is so far from what you usually see in her performances and it’s brilliantly enticing to draw you in waiting for that moment when she finally lets go and expresses herself. As her confidence grows, her personality is infectious, you can’t help but be invigorated alongside her, she brings all of her usual abundant charisma. Then you put the two of them together and it’s wonderful, starting with their initial dislike for one another but you quickly realise that they each hold what the other person needs and the subtle changes to their behaviour and body language as their relationship evolves are perfect. They work impeccably together, their romance isn’t your usual fare, it’s clumsy yet charming, it’s real and imperfect.

If that weren’t enough to show this film’s brilliant casting work, you add Gemma Jones and Fiona Shaw to the mix, two absolute national treasures who only work to further this film’s charm and enticing energy. Jones is a fantastic actress, she can be just as convincing in a silly comedy as a touching drama and she brings a little of both to this role, as the stern, disapproving mother who keeps Mary close, never quite letting her have her own life. Shaw can be a biting, sharp presence but she brings a delicate hand to this role, the way that her character looks at Mary and the slight touches, it’s such a lovely way to communicate their dynamic without having to say it outright. Although like with any film or television show, it needed more of Shaw, sadly it’s a brief role here and it would have been the cherry on top to pull her into events a tad more but that limited time doesn’t change the superb quality of her performance.  

One similarity that you certainly can expect to travel from God’s Own Country to Ammonite is the stunning visual quality, it’s breath-taking how well it translates its cold yet beautiful setting, you can almost feel the brisk sea air. The cinematography (by Stéphane Fontaine) takes the rather dull grey, blue tones and finds a sincere, gripping depth which adds a rich texture to the visual. There’s a transformation that takes place throughout the film that goes beyond just the characters, as time goes on the way that they light Ronan to show her increasing vitality and confidence is superb. Similarly with the score, it becomes gentler and loving at just the right times to tug on your heartstrings. Lee’s direction is terrific throughout but in his final scene, the framing is perfection to emphasise those final shots with everything they have to give.  

The whole story is the perfect metaphor, its characters are exactly like the ammonites they search for, their beauty is being hidden but all they need is a little care and attention to show their true selves. The progression may be slightly too slow for some people but this is a story that asks for your patience and you will be rewarded; the way that it develops the relationship between Mary and Charlotte is gradual but natural, it doesn’t try to create an immediate, runaway affair, it lets them open up to one another and realise their emotions. It’s almost as though they start out speaking different languages and have to learn to understand each other. It creates complex and relatable characters, with a very sympathetic and captivating story, that can be both heart-warming and heart-breaking, if you give it a chance.

Ammonite is full of little gestures that strike at the heart of a larger meaning, it’s subtle and patient while being beautiful and moving. Its imagery is rich and full of depth, the brisk air and crashing waves create not only a stunning visual but a vivid, encompassing atmosphere. This is a superb cast and watching Kate Winslet alongside Saoirse Ronan is exactly the joy you’d expect it to be, and the complicated relationship that they develop is enthralling to watch. Francis Lee takes a leap here to bring forth a story that feels genuine and he sincerely succeeds.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯½

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2020

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