A subtle, yet intensely passionate period love story, Ammonite is the type of film that can tell more with images and glances than most epic novels could manage with thousands of words. A work of great unwavering and 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, 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.
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. 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 best dramatic romances in ages.
Ammonite screened at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.
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