Director: Francis Lee | 2h | Drama, Romance
Real-life fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives a silent life on the coast of England, with her Mother (Gemma Jones), finding stones and doing her research. When a young fossil-enthusiast takes an interest in her work, Mary ends up forming a relationship with his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan).
Mary Anning is one of the greatest in her field, she’s now known in history as a self-taught leader in fossils and palaeontology who honed her own skills – which also makes her one of the leading role models in feminism itself. The way Lee paints her is as such, she’s individualistic and direct but what gives Ammonite it’s actual story is her insecurity and repressed fragility. While there is no evidence of Anning’s sexual orientation laid out in history (making this biopic less than accurate), it helps us shape the idea of human connection in today’s world. Lee’s grim tale is often too bleak for it’s own good but it certainly has the right intentions.
It’s easy to see the connection people are making between Ammonite and Celia Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), both being period piece romance’s featuring two woman. But, while the French film opts for a more flirtatious connection between an artist and her subject, Francis Lee is much more about channeling the romance through the body language and inner anguish of it’s two characters, as if they are delicately being excavated from the the deep caves in which they’re hidden, and it achieves this through a central performance that may be one of Winslet’s best in years.
She’s an enigma of sorts, she’s neither visibly unhappy or happy, minding her own business as she scavenges in the blistering winds of the English coast in search of fossils. Mary doesn’t take too kindly to over enthusiasm in her work, and even scolds the ‘boys club’ of men that work in her field. But all of this feels like a front, and it’s not until Charlotte taps into that deep-set insecurity that we get to see a glimpse of insecurity. Winslet plays this role with both boldness and subtlety, she never allows us to see more than she wants to and for that, the entire character works beautifully. Even in a cast so full of quietly strong performances, the films lives or dies with Winslet, a responsibility she gives her full range too.
Lee spends so long in his world of subtlety that we aren’t given enough time to soak in the true connection they have built together.
At first Charlotte is a frail shell when we first meet her, bound to the arm of her husband with no real sense of purpose or happiness. As her husband over politely suggests, she suffers from “mild melancholia”. She’s left with Mary as he goes galavanting about the globe in search of fossils, and it’s through illness that Mary concedes to the new friendship. The two bond quietly and delicately, at first building foundations until they become reliant on one another’s company, but it’s all stripped away from them as Charlotte is summoned back to London by her husband.
The emotional punch of Charlotte’s departure is somewhat missing, Lee spends so long in his world of subtlety that we aren’t given enough time to soak in the true connection they have built together. The subtlety is one of the films strongest hands, but it feels a little like we needed more time to really be a part of Mary and Charlottes journey together. That, and the fact Charlotte miraculously goes from frail to charismatic in the flick of a switch, are the main reasons as to why Lee’s romance may not hit the mark quite as much as it thinks it does.
Despite it’s shortcomings it’s easy why Ammonite has become such a fixture of this year’s film conversation. It’s shot with a grim beauty befitting of it’s setting, and it’s subtly in feeling and character know no bounds – and the central performance by Winslet is the best we’ve seen her in a long time. Bleak, deep, and quietly beautiful, Lee’s film is much more than female-based romance – it’s a reminder of the importance of being able to share a part of yourself with someone else.