Some may find the sweeping chilliness of Francis Lee’s sophomore feature too bleak, but consider this critic’s cockles warmed. Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet are devastatingly brilliant in Ammonite, forming an unlikely romance between a sickly young wife and a respected paleontologist.
Though most take a little warming up to their craft, Francis Lee’s directorial feature God’s Own Country was widely acclaimed upon its 2017 release: as masterful in its filmmaking and storytelling as any veteran director. Little surprise, then, that he managed to bag two enormous stars for his follow-up, Ammonite: the four-time Oscar nominee Saorsie Ronan and the needs-no-introduction Kate Winslet. Taking the life of paleontologist Mary Anning and adding a dash of artistic license (there isn’t any evidence that Anning was lesbian, though Lee has defended his decision, and it seems perfectly permissible), Lee has crafted an extraordinary film that shakes off the seaweed of any, ahem, other lesbian shoreline period romances.
As soon as we meet Mary (Winslet) in Lyme Regis, with her grimly set face and cantankerous demeanour, there’s little to warm up to. She resents having to sell her beloved discoveries to pretentious London gentlefolk for museum displays, as well as having to keep a tourists’ shop at the insistence of her ailing, unpleasant mother. Despite her fame and respect in the geology community, there’s scant joy in her life aside from her excavation trips on the beach; six of her seven siblings are dead, she is struggling financially and is obviously deeply emotionally repressed. When budding geologist Roderick Murchison, a kind yet dull man, arrives for lessons but then suddenly must leave again, Mary is requested to keep his wife Charlotte (Ronan) company for around six weeks. “I am to walk the shoreline with you,” Charlotte informs Mary, thus beginning the gentle exploration of their lust, which gently ebbs and flows, approaching like the lapping waves against the shore.
Though certainly less sparky than previous roles that she has played, Ronan enlivens the character of Charlotte beyond the stereotype of the young, silent wife. Okay, perhaps not when we first meet her: sickly, dainty, beautiful, lounging prettily in rumpled white sheets like a Pre-Raphaelite in need of sertraline, all long pale limbs, slender nape and intricate bodices. Her delicate stomach can only handle “plain white fish. Baked. No sauce,” and she is suffering with “melancholia.” But when Charlotte goes for a swim in the freezing water and consequently falls ill, Mary is forced to care for her, and trickles of warmth begin to be felt between the icy pair. She looks after Charlotte with the same painstaking care that she does with her fossils, gently tracing her contours, waiting for the true form to emerge. Charlotte reciprocates Mary’s touch, emboldened by the older woman’s tactile care, which sits in stark opposition to her husband who doesn’t seem to touch her.
Mary and Charlotte’s love forms slowly, and at times you feel that it’s impossible that they will ever find common ground. Mary isn’t normally drawn to pretty things; the environment in which she works has wormed its way into her appearance, her fingernails dirty, her hair windswept. But it’s what they have in common that unites them: loneliness. Both provides comfort, conversation and understanding for the other. Charlotte is in awe of Mary’s hard work and talent, which in turn makes Mary feel seen again, stirring joy and feeling that had been fossilized deep within. The love scenes are breathtakingly romantic, focusing intently on unabashed pleasure and selflessness. The use of hands, of gently roving fingertips and sensual brushes of skin on skin, felt deeply reminiscent of an entirely different lesbian romance—Bound—in which the Wachowski sisters used hands and wetness as symbolism in the budding romance between two women, whose physical relationship relies heavily on both those things. Winslet’s surrender to her desire is at once wondrous and heartbreaking: a scene in which Charlotte laughs in conversation with Anning’s suspected ex-lover (Fiona Shaw), sparking a seething moment of jealousy, is so well-acted it feels painful to watch.
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine deftly captures the enigmatic beauty of Lyme Regis, at once biting and beautiful in its grey-blue tones, as well as salient indoor scenes warmed by glowing candlelight. But, though candles let off a comforting glow, they’re everywhere – reminding us constantly that the pair’s time is running out, that the light the romance brings to their lives is soon to be snuffed out. Lee’s direction of Ammonite is fairly discreet, but to the film’s credit—it’s the moments of quiet framing and no sound but for the crashes of the waves that allow Mary’s inner monologue to shout the loudest.
The dialogue, too, is for the most part similarly unshowy, imbuing an organic and slow-paced feel to conversations. There’s a line or two I wish hadn’t made the final draft, hackneyed ‘I’m a bird trapped in a cage’ stuff, but ultimately it’s what isn’t said that makes Ammonite more moving: the vocabulary not yet invented for these women in that time period, articulated through desperate gazes and hungry kisses. There’s an unpleasant scene near the end in which Charlotte clumsily insults Mary in a way that exposes the deep chasm of class difference—it’s hard to watch because Charlotte looks truly foolish and we were previously led to believe she has a deep understanding of Mary, so it is slightly from left field. To the film’s credit, however, it rudely awakens us to yet another heartbreaking aspect to the hopelessness of their situation that we hadn’t even appreciated at first. We’re so caught up in the cheek-flushing passion between the pair that it’s easy to forget the world around them: the sexism, classism and homophobia at every turn.
In the past five years we’ve seen many period lesbian romance dramas of great renown, and comparisons are inevitable. But with a dazzling lead performance by Kate Winslet, heart-aching chemistry and gloriously textured filmmaking, Ammonite could stand above the rest.
Words by Steph Green
Other reviews from the London Film Festival can be found here.
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