AMMONITE is my kind of movie --- a dark, stormy English period piece showcasing two great actors in the lead roles. Though this brooding romantic saga may not appeal to everyone, it is quiet films like this that make me so grateful for a writer/director like Francis Lee.
Little is known about Mary Anning, played brilliantly here by Kate Winslet. She was a self-taught paleontologist in the town of Lyme Regis in the early 1800s. Because of her gender, she was never officially recognized for her outstanding work in fossil discovery. Ammonites are fossils, usually of octopi and squid, that date back millions of years. Mary was quite adept at finding them and cataloguing her treasures.
When AMMONITE begins, it is 1840 and Mary is still searching the coastline of Dorset in Southwest England daily for fossils to sell to wealthy tourists. She barely supports her widowed mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), and herself with their little shop, so she is no position to refuse a well-to-do gentleman, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who requests that she care for his frail wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) while he’s away. She is in mourning over a stillborn child and is unfit to accompany him during his travels. What begins as a hardship for both women turns into a passionate love affair neither expected.
Lee has created a marvelous vehicle for Winslet and Ronan. Winslet has seriously never been better, and Ronan keeps growing with each new role. They enjoyed working together and it is obvious that they established a secure comfort level to be able to film their intimate scenes so provocatively --- and beautifully.
Jones and Winslet had worked together before as mother and daughter in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (1995) and Winslet was thrilled that Lee had cast her. In this relationship so much is left unsaid, but much is communicated via facial expressions and sidelong glances.
Fiona Shaw, who is always at the top of her game, has a smaller, but pivotal role as Elizabeth Philpott. It’s not clear what Elizabeth’s relationship is/was with Mary, but she immediately takes to Charlotte, causing Mary to abruptly depart the salon at Elizabeth’s home. And the way Shaw uses those arched brows of hers, we may never know --- she is so good.
The French cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine is responsible for the magnificent look of AMMONITE. From the blustery scenes on the shoreline to Mary’s almost cell-like bedroom which she ends up sharing with Charlotte, Fontaine’s camera gives breadth to Mary’s astonishing surroundings and her almost cruel existence.
AMMONITE is a truly lovely piece of filmmaking. Lee has imparted a quiet work of art featuring an accomplished cast. This movie may not appeal to some, but for those cinephiles who cherish great performances and a well-written screenplay, do not miss it.
Opinion: See It Now!
Chances are if moviegoers are scanning for things to watch they will bypass AMMONITE. This film with such an innocuous title may not entice the average movie lover. For the record, ammonite refers to a distinct group of prehistoric fossils called cephalopods from as far back as 419 million years ago. However --- any film that features Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan deserves a look.
While AMMONITE will not appeal to the masses, as Jeanne is fond of saying, it is an absorbing and intimate love story. Writer/director Francis Lee follows up his first feature film GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (2017), which focused on a gay relationship, with this story that centers around an improbable lesbian tryst.
AMMONITE earns its “R” rating because of several graphic sex scenes between the two stars, yet Lee manages to make these episodes inoffensive and dramatically realistic. For her part, Winslet admitted to being nervous at times, but she and Ronan developed a strong rapport, and they make us believe that their intense feelings are legitimate.
Mary Anning (Winslet) is a paleontologist, i.e. fossil hunter, in 1840 England living in a small shop in Lyme Regis along the rugged Southwestern coastline. She shares the space with her ailing mother Molly (Gemma Jones) and spends many hours scouring the rocks along the shore looking for fossils she can restore to adequate condition for sale. This is how she supports their meager lifestyle. (In fact, Winslet spent many hours learning how to appropriately process fossilized specimens as an actual paleontologist might do.)
Wealthy tourists Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his wife Charlotte (Ronan) engage Mary at her shop. Charlotte --- whom we learn has recently lost a stillborn baby --- is petite and quite younger than Mary. Note: historical facts reveal that Charlotte was actually 11 years older than Mary, so Lee has taken that liberty with his screenplay which clearly allowed him to cast Ronan in the Charlotte role.
We sense there is not great intimacy in the Murchisons’ relationship based on a brief scene in their hotel room. We also know intuitively that some kind of a physical relationship will evolve between the lonely Mary and the unhappy and sickly Charlotte. So, while it is no surprise when their affair begins, we just wonder how/when Lee will portray it.
Despite a dearth of dialogue in AMMONITE we are drawn to the story because of Lee’s sensitive script and the grand performances of two A-list actors. As Winslet said in an interview, “Walking away from playing her, I was the most inspired I have ever been by any character I’ve played. And I’ve been doing this job twenty-six years.”
Kudos to the hundreds of members of Lee’s crew who have created this unique setting from 180 years ago. Without a toilet or outhouse on the rocks where Mary does her exploration, one scene has Mary squatting to urinate. Winslet did not use a stand-in for this particular shot.
As the movie winds down, Charlotte receives a letter from her husband who has been away --- we can only guess at the content --- and in short order she leaves Mary and Lyme Regis for a flat in London. At this point, we are wondering if Mary will pursue Charlotte or will their relationship end there?
Ultimately AMMONITE boils down to the hopes, expectations --- and most notably assumptions --- of someone relatively young and naive versus the reality of an older individual whose interests and life goals appear to be radically different. Lee ends his tale ambiguously which prompted a brief disagreement between Jeanne and me. But I have no hesitation recommending AMMONITE to serious moviegoers.
Opinion: See It Now!