A subtle, yet intensely passionate period love story, Ammonite is the type of film that can tell more with images, body language, and glances than most epic novels could manage with thousands of words. An unwavering work of smouldering intensity, Ammonite has an unshakable sense of longing and alienation that lingers long after it has ended.
Late 19th century archaeologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) leads a solitary life; partially by design, partially by circumstance. She spends most of her days searching for fossils along the rocky coastlines of Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and toiling in the shop located within her mother’s house. She’s well respected by some in her field, but for the most part, men take credit for her hard work. Roderick (James McArdle) is one such admirer, travelling to Dorset and begging to learn alongside Mary. Roderick brings along his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), despite the fact that she’s still obviously grieving the loss of a child. Charlotte’s doctors have “prescribed her” some time with the sea air to help cure her depression. Roderick is called away on business, and he informs Mary that she will have to look after his wife for the next several weeks. Mary doesn’t want to babysit Charlotte, but during their time together, an infatuation and closeness blossoms that will alter their lives forever.
Much like his previous film, the even better God’s Own Country, writer-director Francis Lee proves to be the type of filmmaker who places strong performances front and centre without bogging his actors down with overwritten or overwrought dialogue. Large portions of Ammonite are so quiet and devoid of dialogue that it often feels voyeuristic. While there is an explicit and daring sex scene that I’m sure many will use as a talking point when discussing the film, Ammonite serves as a reminder that there are moments in romantic relationships that are far more intimate and subtle than physically making love. Ammonite also does an exceptional job of illustrating the patriarchal stranglehold men had over women at the time, even when they’re largely absent from the picture. Outside of a subplot involving one of Mary’s previous relationships that could be better developed and more informative, Ammonite is a film based largely on perception and observation, allowing the viewer to bring their own experiences with love and abandonment into the equation.
The tone throughout Ammonite is purposefully chilly, a perfect fit for two characters who find themselves at low points in their lives. Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine use consistency to their dramatic advantage here, offering up bleak, yet undeniably gorgeous visuals that allow the leads to remain a focal point for warmth and passion. The set design and costuming rhyme perfectly with the narrative and a subtle musical score from Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, creating a vibe that makes one feel like they’re caught in the rain, dirt, muck, and candlelight alongside these characters. Some of the visual symbolism is a bit obvious, but great romance – even as restrained as the one in Ammonite – should be all encompassing, and that’s precisely what Lee achieves here.
Winslet and Ronan, the latter of whom delivers the best work in her continually evolving career, are the perfect match for Lee’s understated queer romance. Amid all of the director’s breathtaking visuals and period details, Winslet and Ronan embody these characters’ bodies, minds, and souls fully. Both together and apart, these characters feel forceful and fully realized, which is perfect for a film where one is never quite sure if they’re “together” as a couple or not, with both performances leaving plenty of room for tantalizing doubt. You know a romance works when the leads can act like people who’ve known each other their entire lives, regardless of how long the characters have actually known each other. Ammonite is a work of seemingly immeasurable grace; one of the finest dramatic and adult romances in ages.
Ammonite opens in select theatres on Friday, November 13, 2020. If seeing a film in cinemas, please take all necessary precautions. Wear a mask, practice social distancing, and stay home if feeling ill.
This review was originally published on September 23, 2020 as part of our coverage of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It was updated, edited, and expanded for the film’s proper release on November 12, 2020.
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