BFI London Film Festival: Ammonite

Directed by Francis Lee
Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones and James McArdle

by Laura Patricia Jones

The picturesque cliffs of Lime Regis set the perfect backdrop for a wistful period romance, but this is no Persuasion. Far swept from the Austen iconography of the Jurassic coast, Francis Lee’s Ammonite is still very much a love story but stripped back from vanity you’d expect from this kind of picture. It’s raw, it’s clumsy, it’s there. And it’s beautiful.

Kate Winslet triumphs as acclaimed but overlooked Fossil Hunter Mary Anning, juxtaposed against the fragile and delicate Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) who she has been reluctantly left to nurse by her husband (James McArdle) following the loss of their child.

Bereaved and sickly Charlotte follows Mary across the rocks of Lime Regis and as her strength grows, so does their attraction for each other. But it’s no cliché and you feel drawn into their world from the start, rattled by the harsh winds, it’s as if you can feel the cold sea under your feet as Ronan dips her toes into the waves.

The entire film feels intimate from the beginning, it’s the textures, it’s the sound. The crunch of pebbles under their feet and close camera angles, capturing looks, glances and bodies from the off. The backdrop is grim and grey, it’s no inviting postcard of Devon, but the romance gives it life. I love Lime Regis but it really is as if Lee purposefully chose the grimmest and coldest of days to bring out its harsher side and show Mary’s world to be as cold and uninviting on the outside as possible.

That said there was still beauty to behold. There’s no illusion left to the imagination and the graphic sex scene(s) were the rawest I’ve seen at a London Film Festival Gala, but not in a seedy way; it was believable and real to the point you felt you were intruding somewhat. So many period romances especially lesbian ones (Carol, Collette, etc) have an air of glamorising the bedroom, but I found Ammonite to be unapologetic in its approach, clumsy and unstaged. Let’s just put it this way, I like so many movie goers, have watched Kate Winslet in bed more times than your average leading lady and this was the one I could believe the most. But then Saorise Ronan as Charlotte – she is beautiful and captivating in an entirely different way, but it works and without getting sentimental you can see why they fall for each other in that way, despite so little words exchanged in the brief but compelling script.

The film presents two women trapped by society in different ways; Mary trying to make her mark and ends meet as a recognised scientist in a man’s world, while Charlotte has been left in an unknown environment, practically bed ridden and branded ‘a little melancholic’ by her husband, but it’s made clear to us that she is grieving for the loss of her child. The circumstances of this are left unknown and undiscussed other than brief muttered words from Charlotte in a fever-induced nightmare. It echoes a time when people didn’t discuss baby loss and it becomes an underlying theme as Mary tells of her mother (Gemma Jones) losing eight children of her own and a piece of herself with each one. It’s also worth noting here that Jones gives a stellar performance as Mary’s mother, gritty and hardened by her years. Practically unrecognisable from her previous roles, Fiona Shaw as Mary’s former lover Elizabeth Philpot really brings a welcome accompaniment to the feature.

Ammonite is loosely inspired by two real people, and whether the events were accurate or not, it’s a story of self-discovery that is to be appreciated. Even though it draws no real conclusion, the strong performances and understated intimacy make it very much worth a watch.


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