Francis Lee’s film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, tells the fictionalized story of Mary Anning, a nineteenth century palaeontologist, and her love affair with a married woman. This is an absorbing and atmospheric film with two great performances.

Ammonite is Francis Lee’s second feature film after his break-out debut feature God’s Own Country. He won the Directing Award at Sundance in 2017 for his first film. Now, with Ammonite, Francis Lee has been shortlisted for the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Bursary Award, organized in association with the British Film Institute (BFI) to support up-and-coming filmmakers. The film was backed by the BFI and BBC Films with See-Saw Films.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives a quiet life with her mother in Lyme Regis, a seaside town in Dorset, where she has a shop selling tourist trinkets and small stone fossils that she finds on the beach. A Mr Murchison comes into her shop with his wife one day, exclaiming profuse admiration for her and her work, calling her in a rather patronizing way the presiding royalty of Lyme. He tells her in no uncertain terms that she is regarded as a legend at the geographical society in London—the boys’ club, she is quick to correct him. He asks her if she would take him to one of her excavations on the beach, willing to pay her handsomely.

His wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), is visibly depressed, grieving, the film subtly suggests, her dead child. After spending the morning with Mary finding nothing on the beach, he returns to find his wife still in bed. He decides for her that she must stay on in Lyme Regis to recover from her “melancholia,” and asks Mary to care for her, in return he will pay her again substantially. The two women are at first distant, but after Charlotte falls ill with a fever, they slowly become closer.

Ammonite is not a biopic. Francis Lee, who wrote and directed the film, imagines this story about Mary Anning falling in love with another woman. Mary Anning did exist and was a pioneering self-taught palaeontologist, as the film depicts, at a time when women were not accepted into the elite scientific community. However, there is no historical account that would confirm Mary Anning’s sexuality. Although the film does not show it, Charlotte Murchison was in reality herself a geologist. She did become a close friend of Mary’s.

Lee’s Ammonite is a tender film about two women discovering each other. However, in the background of this love story transpires the harshness of the world these two women inhabited in 1840s England, dictated by gender and social class. This is a male world, in which women live on the sidelines, especially those from the working class. The opening images of the film conveys this perfectly, showing the hands of a woman washing ornate wooden floors, before she is abruptly, and rather violently, shouted at to move out the way.

The two women’s affair unfolds unnoticed, unseen, the film suggests. Kate Winslet depicts Mary as a woman detached from society, rather asocial, but with a strong character obsessed with her work. Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte is at first withdrawn, leaving all the decisions to be made by her husband, but slowly blossoms next to Mary. Both offer great performances, but their characters’ love story feels unfortunately less convincing.

What is most remarkable about Francis Lee’s film is the way in which it creates a sense of place. You feel the rocky beach, the slippery mud, the freezing water, and the humidity of a seaside town with its salty air. The world that Mary inhabits is raw with plain colors, but she is surrounded by textures—the textures of the fossilized bones onto the rocks, the seashells, and the small porcelain figurines cherished by her mother. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography conveys the visceral sense of textures, creating a very tactile film. The female world depicted is tactile. The textures of her plain dresses contrasts with Charlotte’s ornate silky dresses, thus also emphasizing visually their difference in social class.

Ammonite premieres in the U.K. at the BFI London Film Festival this Saturday October 17, screening in cinemas across the U.K.

Lionsgate has acquired the U.K. rights and plans to release the film in U.K. cinemas in 2021. Neon has acquired the U.S. rights and is scheduled to be released in the U.S. on November 13.

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