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.

LFF Review | Druk / Another Round (2020)

druk another round mads mikkelsen thomas vinterberg tobias lindholm what a life scarlet pleasure lff review

You must accept yourself as fallible in order to love others and life.

Druk (or Another Round, to give it its English title) is a very stylish movie. There’s a sleek, glossy feel to it all, and at its best, the film is absolutely buzzing with energy: it’s going to be remembered, more than anything else, for a handful of scenes as it opened and closed, its characters dancing and laughing and celebrating together. In those moments, there’s a real sense of vitality, even urgency, to it – Thomas Vinterberg’s direction isn’t just lively but frenetic, constantly moving, dynamic, bursting with passion.

That’s not to say that Druk is always quite so heightened, though: in fact, those scenes are only as striking as they are because they stand in such contrast to the rest of the film. Vinterberg’s script (written with collaborator Tobias Lindholm) is full of carefully handled tonal shifts, moments when such excessive drinking becomes fraught with danger, not with possibility. Druk captures exhaustion as well as it does ecstasy – it’s as much about the dull monotony of a passive life as it is those moments of zeal and enthusiasm that puncture it. By the same token, when the glitz and glamour of newfound confidence gives way to something altogether more squalid, Druk handles that well too, the film taking on a certain melancholy air whenever it pauses to catch a breath.

The film is anchored by a strong performance by Mads Mikkelsen – here clearly the lead, Druk much more interested in his character rather than any particular effort to build an ensemble. As ever, Mikkelsen shines, flawlessly inhabiting that creaking, tired ennui moving to careless abandon that defines his character, all underscored by an increasingly ragged desperation for a better way to live. It’s his final scene, though, that proves most memorable – an extended dance sequence, Mikkelsen lithe and nimble, one last note of joy for the film to end on. With Vinterberg’s direction at its most kinetic, and set to the film’s song What a Life, it’s not just the most memorable part of Mikkelsen’s performance, but of Druk as a whole too – the single most stylish scene in an already very stylish movie.

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Nonetheless, while Druk is undeniably sleek, there’s a sense that perhaps it’s a case of style over substance – underneath the gloss and the sheen, it’s a much less compelling and thoughtful film than it appears to be.

It likely doesn’t qualify as a spoiler to reveal that four teachers choosing to drink to excess does not, ultimately, go very well for them. Druk is a story of a rise and a fall; their ostensibly academic study into psychologist Finn Skarderud’s theory that people should drink continually to maintain a certain level of blood alcohol content quickly turns into outright alcoholism. Renewed vigour in their personal and professional lives is soon replaced by maudlin lethargy and a sudden reversal of fortunes; it plays oddly, though, like a remarkably niche morality tale. (Surely no one else has actually tried this? Even Skarderud later denounced the theory, claiming to have been misunderstood.) It’s not clear exactly what Druk is getting at, or what the point of it all is – whether it’s a critique of Danish drinking culture or a fairly roundabout, heavily caveated celebration.

Part of this is that, for all Vinterberg’s willingness to commit wholeheartedly to individual scenes of drunken excess, the script itself is surprisingly cautious. It’d be unreasonable, yes, to expect the film to make a sweeping, definitive statement about alcohol use (and abuse) – and any such statement would likely be a very trite one. But while the direction is perfectly pitched, the balance of the script is off – too bogged down in the specifics of the drinking, losing sight of the character study, attempts at nuance instead coming across as equivocating. (One teacher encourages a student to drink before an exam, surely a signifier that they’d gone too far, but… it does actually seem to help the student?) Meanwhile, the opening act feels sparse and pared back, almost in a hurry to start drinking, and the eventual downfall comes too quickly: whatever Druk is getting at, whether at particular point or even a general theme, is sketched too lightly to make much impact.

Perhaps Druk would benefit from a repeat viewing – or another round, if you will – to more fully appreciate exactly what it’s going for. Certainly, there’s enough going on that revisiting the film would be rewarding: Druk is full of strong scenes and individually very impressive moments, each of which make strong impressions on their own terms. The film as a whole doesn’t quite manage to cohere, though, leaving Druk feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.

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.