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A highly anticipated Oscar hopeful launched on Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival: Ammonite, a period piece love story written and directed by Francis Lee, the British director whose prior film, 2017’s God’s Own Country, was widely admired, and starring two actresses who many regard as the best of their respective generations, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
The film, which Neon intends to release on Nov. 13, is set in 1840s England and centers on two women of considerably different ages, economic classes and dispositions, both wounded in their own ways: Winslet’s Mary Anning, a pioneering paleontologist (who actually lived) of middle age, who scrapes by enough to keep a roof over the head of herself and her mother, and wears a constant look of unhappiness; and Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison, a younger woman who is unhappily married (she is apparently a composite of women that Anning knew) and is left in Anning’s care when her husband goes abroad, whereupon sparks fly.
Numerous critics I know are gushing about the film — THR‘s own David Rooney, for instance, states in his review, “Ammonite just floored me; I can’t think of a single aspect that could be improved upon” — with some calling Winslet’s performance the best of her distinguished decades-long career. I myself found it a bit cliche-riddled, troubling (Ronan was three when Winslet starred in Titanic) and difficult to believe (in the sense that — spoiler alert — it is the meek younger woman, who is so concerned about appearanes, who initiates romance with the older closed-off woman, who is not).
But the Academy is its own beast, and it will be interesting to see how its members respond to the film. I imagine it will face an uphill climb not because of its queer subject matter — Call Me By Your Name was a best picture nominee just three years ago and Carol probably came very close to being one five years ago — but because voters rarely embrace tone poems like this one to the same extent as critics, preferring to have their films more spelled out for them. Take, for instance, last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a gorgeous-looking period piece lesbian love story which registered at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes and received numerous critics awards, but was entirely ignored by Oscar voters.
One can be sure, though, that Academy members will at least fire up the screener of a film that stars two famous actresses with 11 Oscar nominations and one statuette between them (Winslet won best actress for 2008’s The Reader) and counts among its producers the Oscar winners behind The King’s Speech, Iain Canning and Emile Sherman. And even if they don’t click with the story, they will have a hard time denying that the film is pretty to look at (with outstanding cinematography, costume and production design) and listen to (its score is by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, Oscar nominees for Lion).
Winslet, meanwhile, is already racking up accolades: she is this year’s recipient of TIFF’s Tribute Actor Award.
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