LFF Review | Ammonite (2020)

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You were the most fascinating person here tonight, and I think the most beautiful.

It’s helpful not to think of Ammonite as a love story. It resembles one, certainly, and that’s intentional – but Ammonite quite pointedly subverts rather than embraces that resemblance, never quite resolving into the narrative it seems to offer at the outset. The romance between Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is positioned at some remove throughout, almost as though observed rather than felt; it’s an object of fascination, yes, but moreso for why it ultimately doesn’t work than why it almost does.

Instead, Ammonite is perhaps somewhat better understood as a character study, as a careful, delicate excavation of Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning. (At least in the sense that that is closer to what it is, as opposed to what it isn’t, i.e. “not a love story”.) Mary is cold and guarded, austere and brusque; it’s a very controlled, restrained performance from Winslet, with a deceptive precision to her bluntness. Actors are often said to anchor a film with their performance, but that’s especially true of Winslet here – much of Ammonite’s impact comes from the tactile weight of its filmmaking, which is accentuated by Winslet’s similarly grounded performance. It takes some skill to portray such a deliberately distant character, particularly in a film that fashions itself as a romance; Winslet’s Mary isn’t a straightforwardly charismatic romantic lead, to say the least. Nonetheless, she’s an engaging screen presence: guarded, yes, but uncompromising too, insistent on her own quiet corner of a world that largely ignores her.

At times that sense of coldness comes to define the film, evoked not just by Winslet’s performance but Francis Lee’s direction. Lee imbues Ammonite with a remarkable sense of place – the film is very grounded in a sense of physical experience, from the loud crash of waves and the crunch of pebbles underfoot, to the rustle of fabric and the scratch of a pencil. It has a heft to it, a weight; there’s a lot of trust placed in the texture of Stéphane Fontaine’s bleak, windswept cinematography and Johnnie Burn’s attentive sound design as Ammonite emphasises atmosphere ahead of dialogue for much of its runtime. For the most part, Ammonite is a very quiet movie, but it’s impactful because of that pared back quality, not despite it; there’s something very rich in its stillness, its willingness to dwell in long silences.

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The film isn’t always as subtle as it could be – at one point Mary describes herself as “a fancy bird in a gilded cage”, as presumably every woman in a period drama is obliged to do – but when it is, it renders those long silences fraught with meaning. Implicit in the script, and Saoirse Ronan’s performance, is that her character Charlotte has recently suffered a bereavement; her otherwise upbeat husband is withdrawn when insisting “now is not the time for another child”, and Charlotte is clearly drawn to the painted statues that represent Molly Anning’s own lost children. It’s this that sees her so frail and melancholy at the start of the film, only coming alive again through her growing bond with Mary.

Saoirse Ronan’s part here is more of a departure than the familiar period drama costuming suggests; her more recent roles, Little Women’s Jo March and Lady Bird’s Lady Bird in particular, are each much more verbose, more articulate characters than Charlotte Murchison. In a sense, she’s playing against type in Ammonite – less animated than usual, her big scenes in Ammonite smaller moments of fleeting vibrancy rather than the expressive, impassioned speeches that defined previous characters. Ronan impresses, as she always does, though it’s never her film in the way it is Winslet’s; Charlotte is very much a supporting role, a foil for Mary and another lens through which to approach and understand her.

Mary and Charlotte are, gradually, drawn to one another, and Ammonite makes much of their physical intimacy – but their connection never quite cements itself, their happy ending ultimately subverted and taken away. It recontextualises the rest of the film up to that point, prompting the question of why it didn’t work, why had the pair – clearly – not understood one another as they’d thought. Ammonite’s love story that refuses to cohere is as much a part of Francis Lee’s interrogation of class as his depiction of the rich men dominating palaeontology. Charlotte, however inadvertently, treats Mary as a thing to own, something fascinating and beautiful, yes, but like a display piece rather than a person – like an ammonite.

The film will likely prove divisive; it’s never the crowd-pleasing romance it seems to promise, and it’ll likely be misunderstood as a result. What Ammonite is, though, is compelling and engaging all the same, and ultimately something far more nuanced and complex than the alternative: it’s not a love story, but a story about the impression it can still leave behind.

Related:

London Film Festival 2020 reviews

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this review – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

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