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By Sarah Ward
January 14, 2021
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By Sarah Ward
January 14, 2021
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Looking at an ammonite fossil is like putting your ear up to a seashell: in their ridged spirals, it feels as if a whole new world could exist. In the latter's case, each one is made from the remains of extinct molluscs from millions of years ago, and lingers now as a reminder of a different time and existence, its compact coils encasing all of its secrets. The striking specimens from the past provide the film Ammonite with its title, and with an obvious metaphor as well — but also an apt one that's brought to life with meticulous delicacy. The two central characters in this patient yet always evocative 1840s-set romance are the product of centuries of convention and expectation, with society's engrained views about women both weathering away at them and solidifying their place. They're also as tightly wound as the historical remnants they tirelessly search for along the craggy, cliff-lined West Dorset coastline.

Writer/director Francis Lee made his feature debut with 2017's exceptional God's Own Country, which means he has already deployed many of the choices that are pivotal to Ammonite. Both brandish a title that functions literally and symbolically. Both spin stories about queer love that arises slowly and organically in heightened and intimate circumstances. Both dive into specific, labour-intensive fields with a resolute and instinctive connection to the land, and derive an elemental tenor from their crucial locations. The two films each watch on tenderly as a new arrival upends the status quo, unleashing a wave of affection that takes both parties by surprise — unlocking a lifetime of closely held emotions, and gifting lonely souls a connection they wouldn't otherwise admit they yearned for. But Lee's latest feature isn't just the lesbian counterpart to its predecessor. While the movies complement each other perfectly, Ammonite unearths its own depths and boasts its own strengths. Lee has made the concerted decision not just to focus on women, but to fictionalise the relationship between real-life scientists who find solace in each other as they're forced to fight to be seen as anything other than housewives.

Living in Lyme Regis with her ailing mother (Gemma Jones, Rocketman), Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, Wonder Wheel) is no one's wife, and doesn't want to be — but, toiling in the male-dominated realm of palaeontology, she's accustomed to being treated differently to her peers. As a child, she found her first ammonite fossil, which is displayed in the British Museum. Now scraping by running a shop that sells smaller specimens to rich tourists, she hasn't stopped looking for other big discoveries since. When geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, Mary, Queen of Scots) visits Mary's store, however, he's after her services in a different way. In a casual reminder of just how dismissively women are regarded, she's asked to take care of his melancholic wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women) while he travels abroad for work. Roderick thinks it'll be good for Charlotte to learn from Mary, to get outside daily and to have a sense of purpose, but Mary only agrees for the money.

Ammonite swells with foreboding, rather than with astonishment. Viewers know where the narrative is heading, and soak in every moment of the gradual journey along the way. And, as Mary and Charlotte form a friendship and then something more, working through their individual traumas in the process — Mary's heart is hardened from a failed relationship with another villager, while Charlotte's depression stems from a miscarriage — the audience dives into their passion and their struggles in tandem. Eventually, heated trysts ensue, but Ammonite isn't a torrid, feverish, corset-ripper. Lee paces his film deliberately, colours it with grey and naturalistic hues thanks to cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (Jackie, Elle), and gives it an almost grim mood, all to stress just how Mary and Charlotte's bond offers a ray of sunshine in an otherwise austere existence. Mirroring the restrained lives enforced upon 19th-century women in general, and those trying to forge careers specifically, the filmmaker's approach proves thoughtful, involving and moving; to truly understand why his central couple dissolve with such contentment in each other's embrace requires deeply feeling the oppression and unhappiness that surrounds them everyday.

Casting frequent Oscar favourites Winslet and Ronan has a significant impact, of course. God's Own Country didn't need high-profile names to leave an impression, and neither does Ammonite, but Lee has enlisted two of the best actors for the current job. The former won a golden statuette for 2009's The Reader, the latter nabbed four nominations before her 26th birthday, and both rank among the greats presently gracing our screens — a status that Ammonite only reinforces. Playing complex and conflicted characters so used to aching inside that it shades every element of their demeanour, they're each quietly and potently expressive here in their own ways. Winslet is stern, fierce, no-nonsense and task-oriented, while Ronan is eager and open but heartbroken and tentative. Each recognises more than a little of themselves in the other, and the magnetic pull drawing Mary and Charlotte closer becomes palpable in their hands.

Watching Winslet and Ronan's often-silent, always-emotionally loaded stares, viewers can be forgiven of thinking of the past year's other stellar sapphic romance; however, Ammonite doesn't merely lurk in Portrait of a Lady on Fire's shadow either. Exquisitely told love stories can simmer and sparkle to the point of threatening to catch ablaze, as the French film does so magnificently. They can also ebb and flow back and forth like the tide washing against the rocky shore, which this English drama prefers. Ammonite serves up its own equally nuanced and resonant affair as a result, crackling with the salty ocean air and clinging to the forbidding cliffs rather than shimmering and sitting in the beachside sun. A solemn sense of beauty emanates, too, as does an earthy reminder that romances, women and under-appreciated bright minds alike never just adhere to one type — and that excavating that truth should be commonplace, rather than monumental.

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