By Nadia Dalimonte
Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in Ammonite (2020)
Writer-director Francis Lee cracks open a chilly exterior to find warmth in his latest film Ammonite, a beautifully delicate character drama about a woman who unearths passion through paleontology. The story is set in 1840s England and is loosely based on the real life of Mary Anning, a fossil hunter who was not recognized in her lifetime for the contributions she made to paleontology development. Ammonite follows Mary (Kate Winslet) late in life, when fossils have become unpopular but she still trudges through sand and operates a little shop by the sea. She lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who has suffered unspeakable loss and is dealing with a relentless illness. The two have a fractious relationship, but they have the best intentions for each other at heart. Mary's shop sees little action until she receives a visit one day from an upper class London couple, Roderick (James McArdle) and his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Roderick, who takes interest in fossils, asks Mary if she’ll take Charlotte under her wing and teach her about fossil hunting in the hopes of lifting her out of grief. Having experienced a devastating loss, Charlotte is in a persistent state of melancholia.
The two women meet very early on; it’s not until halfway through the film that their relationship intensifies, which makes room for a crackling slow burn on course to an all-consuming romance. Charlotte is a broken character with great capacity to give love, and her outward display of affection unlocks something in Mary’s steely demeanor. With a glance here and a slight touch there, the characters’ interactions gradually build up to reveal glimmers of repressed emotion. Francis Lee works through the story by exploring with an intent focus on physical interactions. Every movement feels very character based and character driven. The film moves with a gradual melody that is both intimate and hypnotic. Mary and Charlotte slowly discover that they can both give each other the comfort in feeling understood and knowing they are not alone. The pacing of the story takes time and patience to delicately unearth their relationship and bring warmth to a chilly atmosphere.
One of the pitfalls of a quiet, slow burn approach is losing the momentum that simmers beneath the surface. But with Lee’s character building, the film seldom loses its passion no matter how tranquil. It’s still there, simmering on, which is also a testament to incredibly detailed performances. The way Mary exhibits such still energy in how she carries herself, both emotionally and physically, is very different to Kate Winslet’s previous work. She often plays characters who wear their heart on their sleeve and energize a room. While it’s not a surprise that she’s brilliant in this film, it’s intriguing at this stage in her long career to watch her play a person so composed and emotionally held. It’s interesting that she doesn’t have a big moment of completely unfolding and pouring her heart out. She comes close (for her at least) at times, but never does. Mary holds everything in, and in the few moments that she does express herself whether through joy or ache, she shows how the character comes to be unlocked by Charlotte. Winslet brings a fantastic level of restraint that sizzles not so much in words, but in glances and body language. The tiniest expressions carry so much weight thanks to the immaculate detail she infuses in one of the greatest performances of her career.
The realization of not being understood is one that aches deeply, and there is a point in this film where Mary has this fear during one of her and Charlotte’s most fervent interactions. Yes, Charlotte has an effect on her and unlocks something in her, but Mary still has her guard up. These are two characters who seem contrary in their energy, but they each possess qualities that keep them interconnected in the real world. Complementary to Winslet’s emotional labour is Saoirse Ronan, who infuses an infectiously giving nature into Charlotte. It’s easy to see why their bond doesn’t waver when reality kicks in; Ronan does a lovely job of portraying the interdependency Charlotte shares with Mary, as well as the manifestation of Charlotte’s own search for a loving connection at a most vulnerable time. There’s also a lightness and inviting energy to Ronan’s performance that gives rise to Winslet’s growing comfortability around her. It’s easy to see why Mary feels she can drop the weight of her experiences when spending time with Charlotte. When it’s just the two of them, the rest of the world melts away. There’s something incredibly moving about an emotional door being opened for Mary, as she’s given a moment to be understood. Charlotte unlocks something in her in a way that others could not, as Mary’s ex-lover Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw) muses. With the little screen time Shaw is given to establish her character, she has a wonderfully intriguing impact on the film and makes it quickly evident that the two characters have a history. Shaw and Winslet share a beautiful scene in the final act during which Elizabeth reflects on the pitfalls of their relationship.
Mary has an added layer of unfulfilled potential when the film addresses her name being erased from history. Part of the weight that she carries around stems from the fact that she was not properly acknowledged in her lifetime. She spends all this time digging and brushing fossils, an arduous task as Charlotte amusingly explains in one scene when she tells off a prospective buyer who visits Mary’s shop. Mary is deeply involved in her work, and not only is she overlooked, but her achievements are stolen from her. Men take all the credit for her discoveries, replacing her handwritten notes and signature with a standard description card. There’s a quietly moving scene of Mary wandering around a British history museum, seeing her work with somebody else’s name on it. In this moment comes the realization that Ammonite is not just about love between two women. It's also about Mary's unwavering love for her work, and the sense of responsibility she feels to give herself to it.
Much like the protagonist, Ammonite has a tough exterior that melts with the potentiality of a warm and loving embrace. The film is a thoughtful and studied look at a particularly emotional moment in Mary Anning’s life. Accompanied by a lovely Dustin O'Halloran & Volker Bertelmann score, gorgeous cinematography and costumes, the story unravels hypnotically with the perfect blend of drama and occasional humour. At the dormant heart of this story is a woman whose yearning to be understood unlocks the door to rediscovery and slow builds to an ending full of hope.
Ammonite releases on demand December 4th.