God’s Own Country director Francis Lee returns with another feature, but unlike its much-lauded predecessor, Ammonite trades Yorkshire for the Jurassic Coast. Set in the English coastal town of Lyme Regis in the mid-19th-century, Ammonite gives a fictional account of the founder of modern palaeontology, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), and her brief relationship with a young woman (Saoirse Ronan) sent to the seaside to improve her health. While Winslet gives the best performance of the feature, this blustery tale –replete with landscape cinematography — offers a little more style over substance.
Director: Francis Lee
Release date: October 17, 2020
Ammonite is based on the true story of Mary Anning, a woman who laboured in relative obscurity collecting and curating fossils in her home seaside town. Though she was well known to London geographical societies, she was never let into the closed, male-dominated circle. As a result, she was forced to sell her discoveries in order to pay her living costs and support her elderly mother. Her name didn’t become well known to the public until after her death in 1847, at the age of 48, and so the film pays homage not only to Anning but to all women who have gone unrecognised for their discoveries over the years.
Though Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) is a fictitious character, the idea of her was initially conceived by bringing together segments of Mary’s real female friends. I think some of the issues with this revisionist tale started early on, as I imagined Charlotte’s marriage to Roderick Murchison (James McArdle (another collaboration together following Mary Queen of Scots) would feature more heavily than it did. The two allude to their troubled marriage so far, reminiscing about better days before Charlotte was diagnosed with ‘mild melancholia.’ Some of their troubles are more implied, though I have to say that much of the dialogue around the issue is abrupt and clichéd.
Roderick plans to visit Lyme Regis to seek out and learn from Mary, but soon after his arrival and a stony reception (no pun intended), he’s due to depart again. With what I’m sure his character believes is a delicacy, he offers Mary money to take care of his wife and school her in fossils during his absence. He leaves… and that’s the last we see of him (If there is one element of the film to be praised, though, it’s the distinct lack of male figures, shifting the focus onto the women).
Naturally, during the course of the next few weeks, the women begin to bond. Despite their initial mutual hesitation, Charlotte soon gets ill and requires care which only Mary can give. It would be a sweet scenario had it not already been done to death -you don’t grow up a British teenage girl without your weekly fix of Austen-. Tired are the clichés of ‘getting a high fever’ while out taking a dip in the sea: predictable is the appearance of an absolutely gorgeous local doctor visiting to check on the patient while making advances on Mary. It’s quite amusing, if formulaic.
Comparisons are bound to be drawn to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but unlike that film (which saw a rapturous reception at the 2019 NYFF and LFF), Ammonite lacks something of the same urgency and sensuousness. It’s a slower-burning film on every level, set in the cold, damp English setting as opposed to the more illustrious European continent. Mary even makes a clumsy attempt to draw a sketch of Charlotte while she sleeps and to write poetry about her, but it’s always handled too heavily, never delicately. There are certainly marked differences in the characters between the two films: it’s clear Mary is a low-born woman with little education and no desire to mix with the upper classes, making the story far less glamorous in every respect.
If I may say so, I think there’s also a big difference between the respective male and female directors’ takes on similar female relationships. Perhaps Celine Sciamma painted her characters with a more delicate hand than Francis has done. That’s not to say that Ammonite doesn’t have its tender moments, but there’s something matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, about the women’s relationship and their attitudes towards it. Some of the dialogue could have been replaced with silent frames. Perhaps a little more refining to the text and we could have a leaner, more subtle screenplay.
Ronan and Winslet do work well together, though, reminding me a lot of Ronan’s bridled performance in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach. I’d vouch that Winslet is golden in almost anything she touches, but here, her Dorset accent and devil-may-care attitude really endears me to her character. One thing I felt unnecessary was an allusion to a relationship with another woman in town. The discussion of their shared past yields little beyond admitting that Mary could be quite distant when she wanted to. It’s not hugely fruitful and the character could have been cut: just an example of some slightly anaemic characterisation.
The reception for Ammonite has been mixed so far, but I hope the press is a little kinder to this film than other, lesser features. It’s got potential and the presence of the landscape is beautiful: at once overwhelming and immutably part of their lives. Indeed, both women are prized out of their lives of stone and form a bond that gives them both joy and comfort for a while. Attention to detail is paramount, and the fossil allegory extends even to the shape of bonnets and sundry items, showing a level of care has gone into the production. Fundamentally, though, Ammonite feels a little laboured: beneath its cold exterior is a story with which I lacked any real connection.