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Ammonite (15) | Close-Up Film Review

Dir: Francis Lee, UK/Australia/US, 2020, 118 mins.

Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, James McArdle, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw

Review by Carlie Newman

The closing night gala of the London Film Festival 2020 was Francis Lee’s AMMONITE. The film tells a fictionalised account of an actual segment of the life of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. Directed by Francis Lee, the movie looks at the fossil collector, Mary (Kate Winslet) and weaves in a story about a visit from Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and her geologist husband, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). Mary and Charlotte are from two different worlds. While Charlotte and her husband are wealthy and have a house in London, Mary struggles to make ends meet and lives in a small cottage in Dorset.

Mary has made some important finds, but she is largely overlooked by the male establishment. She now lives in Lyme Regis with her elderly infirm mother (Gemma Jones). They run a little shop selling various tourist bits and pieces including seashells.

When the ill Charlotte – her husband says she is suffering from melancholia – is left alone with Mary while her husband goes away on a trip, Mary nurses her when she gets a fever. Charlotte joins Mary in collecting specimens on the beach in Lyme Regis. Starting off as a brittle pairing, the two very gradually form a lesbian relationship.

There are two magnificent portrayals here. Kate Winslet shows once again just how well she can enter into a character and show us a rounded performance. The change from her very brittle persona in the early part of the film to a woman finding love as she shows tenderness to another later on is most moving. And Saoirse Ronan is also an actress who can show us almost her inner soul as she walks in the shadow of her husband and doesn’t have a life of her own let alone an independent voice. Mary acts completely independently. She and her mother are self-sufficient, albeit with not much warmth between them. Mary has a life that she has fought to establish for herself and answers to no one. She imparts some of this to Charlotte who blossoms in the love that comes from Mary.

The smaller parts are well characterised too. Gemma Jones is a mature, competent actress and gives Molly, Mary’s mother, a rounded performance. Fiona Shaw, in a very small part as a past local lover, manages to convey the repressed sexuality that existed at the times as she confronts Mary with memories of a past liaison between the two.

Director Francis Lee captures 19th century England in many minute details. The camera work brings the bleak cold Dorset coast into our (at the moment) homes. Lee uses sound expertly – not loud and all the time, but carefully to enhance his visual images.

I found the most erotic part if the film is actually the time we spend observing the growing intimacy between the two, in looks and small talk, before the actual more robust sex scenes. Set in Dorset, there is much energetic lust on show and Lee manages to get the feel not only of the area where Mary lives, but also the growing attraction and desire between the two women.

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