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In his profoundly affecting 2017 feature debut God’s Own Country, Francis Lee crafted a queer love story for the ages, carved out of rigorous emotional candor, uninhibited sexuality and an evocative connection between the two men at its center and the land that draws them together. Three years later, the British writer-director returns with Ammonite, an exquisite female companion piece whose transfixing quietness never conceals the roiling undercurrents of feeling beneath its surface. This is the work of a mature filmmaker in full command of his voice, yielding remarkable performances, chief among them a complex character study of stoicism and desire from Kate Winslet that might be the best work of her career.
A Cannes 2020 selection that also was chosen for Telluride but now will have its official premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Ammonite looks to be another feather in the cap for rising-star boutique label Neon, which last year released a comparable landmark in lesbian screen representation, Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
With no diminishment of the indelible sense of place that defined his first film, Lee trades the rugged farmlands of his native Yorkshire for the equally forbidding rocky beaches of Lyme Regis on England’s South West coast in the 1840s. He takes as his jumping off point a historical figure about whom relatively little is known, Mary Anning (Winslet), a working class paleontologist whose achievements were obscured by the well-heeled boys’ club of science at that time. This is a purely speculative fiction inspired by passionate letters exchanged between various 19th century women, yet every moment of its bracing intimacy feels elevated by authenticity. There’s not a false note to be found.
Under a wintry sky that seems almost a permanent shade of gray, Mary combs the windswept shores at the foot of her Dorset village for fossils and shells to sell in the shopfront of a modest family home she shares with her elderly widowed mother Molly (Gemma Jones, wonderful). She inherited her sharp eye for interesting rock formations from her father, making her most notable find at age 11, with a magnificent ichthyosaurus fossil. Sold to provide food and clothing for the family, that specimen now sits in the British Museum in London, with the name of a male scientist on its display cabinet.
Mary’s callused hands and the dirt beneath her fingernails suggest her dedication to her field, even if the meager bowl of vegetable broth and a boiled egg that constitute her evening meal with her mother indicate their poverty. Molly’s persistent cough seems the direct result of a drafty, unheated house with few comforts. It’s later revealed that Mary was one of 10 children, eight of whom died, and there’s tragic poignancy in her depressive mother’s Glass Menagerie-like fixation on her “babies,” a shelf of china dog figurines that she lovingly washes and polishes every night.
Into this joyless world steps Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), an apparent mouse of a woman on the arm of her chipper husband Roderick (James McArdle), a member of the men-only Geographical Society in London.
While the fashion in science has moved on from paleontology, Roderick profits from his visit to Lyme Regis for Charlotte’s convalescence to call on Mary and ask to observe her at work on the beach before he embarks on an archeological tour of the Continent. An intensely private, taciturn person, Mary is reluctant to agree. But she’s in no position to refuse his offer of financial compensation. The same applies when he subsequently asks her to provide companionship for Charlotte after his departure.
The two women at first regard one another in wary silence. They couldn’t be more different — Mary is sturdy, indifferent to her appearance and hardened by solitude; Charlotte is corseted, buttoned and bonneted, enfeebled by a patronizing husband who expects her to be her bright and clever self without really bothering to know her. Both women are cramped by gender expectations offering them little fulfillment, even if Mary has rejected the outer trappings of conventional femininity.
The much younger Charlotte, who has been suffering from melancholia since the loss of an infant, bristles at being forced to stay in a chilly place where she knows no one. Mary, who has little time for social graces, resents being expected to babysit someone about whom she mumbles impatiently, “Looks to be fuck all wrong with you to me.” Her idea of a welcome is to hand Charlotte a pair of old boots to save her dainty footwear from the rough terrain of the beach.
When Charlotte catches a chill after misjudging the tide on her first day out with Mary, the village medic, Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secareanu, like Jones, another welcome God’s Own Country alum), advises that she be kept under constant care. Mary has no choice but to give up her bed to the guest, nursing her through feverish nightmares and treating her illness with apothecary salve she purchases from Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw, in regally precise form).
Fashionable, moneyed Elizabeth has a painful history with Mary which emerges in a handful of beautifully played scenes that allude to more than they spell out. Narrative economy of this kind is a constant in Lee’s films, as is the deliberately unfussy visual style. In this case, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s camera sits tight on the characters, opening a window into their turbulent inner lives even as it seldom remains still. The preponderance of natural light or period-appropriate candles or kerosene lamps also adds to the unpolished texture, an austerity that feeds the emotional power.
There’s a touch of Thomas Hardy’s rustic Victorian realism here in the regional setting and the chafing of characters against societal restraints. But there’s something modern, too, in the rough-hewn quality of the film, with editor Chris Wyatt’s quick cuts never lingering long enough to let emotion stiffen into sentimentality. In that way also there’s a cohesive line tying Ammonite to God’s Own Country. While the earlier work was a present-day drama that felt timeless, this follow-up is a period piece with a subtly contemporary edge.
As Charlotte slowly recovers, her petulance makes way for a growing eagerness to break down Mary’s walls, at first simply by offering to help around the house. When she’s given carrots to peel for soup, it’s obvious that pampered Charlotte has never cleaned a vegetable in her life. Mary sends her out to the coal bin with a bucket instead. The laughter caused by her clumsiness dissolves into tears of pent-up repression in a lovely scene that provides the first tentative sign of a crack in the gloomy isolation keeping the two women apart.
Distance returns between them when Dr. Lieberson invites Mary to a music recital and she insists on Charlotte coming too, possibly as insurance against his romantic overtures. Mary, with her unrefined West Country accent, clearly feels out of her element in a social environment, her unease magnified when she witnesses Elizabeth responding to Charlotte’s charms. But Charlotte is sensitive to Mary’s hurt. The young woman steadily grows more emboldened, leading to a goodnight kiss that sparks in an instant from affection to passion.
As he did in God’s Own Country, Lee shows a refreshing frankness in filming same-sex carnality and nudity that distinguishes him from most of his coyer American counterparts. As the women’s sexual relationship blooms, a fumbling, almost feral hunger overtakes them and they tear at each other’s clothing. The coarse calico of Mary’s dresses and pantaloons sharply contrasts with the more delicate gowns and undergarments of a lady, worn by Charlotte. But the removal of those clothes erases divisions of class and age with a stirring sensuality that’s raw and urgent and never prettified.
Both Winslet and Ronan are fully vested in their characters, neither of them holding anything back in a depiction of physical love that’s both transporting and restorative. So much is conveyed in brief glances or quick touches that the movie’s romantic ignition makes your heart race. The softness that transforms Winslet’s face in particular is ineffably moving, especially given that so much of her characterization is so contained, hinting at years of self-denial and frustration.
The women’s bliss extends to gorgeous scenes on the beach, where Mary coaxes Charlotte into the water, and the younger woman becomes more enterprising, persisting in gouging a fossil out of the rocks even after her more experienced friend tells her it’s too hard. That find is an incomplete yet stunning example of the extinct marine mollusk that gives the film its title. Charlotte’s practiced poise in society also allows her to be more forthright, in another touching scene speaking up for Mary’s work in a way that she perhaps never has been able to do for herself.
The abrupt interruption to their happiness comes not because of any breakdown of affection, or melodramatic exposure in the plotting but because of a return of crushing reality. Mary’s descent back to earth is compounded by additional sad circumstances; her silences are shattering. Charlotte breaks with more visible fragility, but her youthful resilience manifests in a later scene that shows the marked differences in character of the two women. As he suggested in God’s Own Country, Lee believes that the age of the miserable gay love story is over. He ends on a note of hope, with a breathtaking closing shot at the British Museum that stayed with me long afterwards.
There’s nothing precious about the expert period production and costume design of Sarah Finlay and Michael O’Connor, respectively. But the milieu is vividly drawn, both in the village, where well-dressed local women look askance at Mary’s unkempt appearance, and in London, where men in Victorian top hats and coats seem silently to mock her for considering herself a scientist. This is a richly descriptive portrait of a patriarchal society where all women essentially are outsiders, let alone two women conducting a clandestine love affair.
The swell of deep feeling in the film is enhanced by sparing use of a somber string and piano score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann and by special attention to the elemental sounds of wind and waves and occasional birdsong. But the most powerful tool in this lovingly told story is the unimpeachably naturalistic ensemble work of a cast that simply couldn’t be bettered, led with startling emotional transparency by Winslet and Ronan. In many ways it’s a deceptively modest work, but Ammonite just floored me; I can’t think of a single aspect that could be improved upon.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production companies: See-Saw Films
Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secareanu, Fiona Shaw
Director-screenwriter: Francis Lee
Producers: Ian Canning, Emile Sherman, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly
Executive producers: Mark Burke, Rose Garnett, Simon Gillis, Zygi Kamasa
Director of photography: Stéphane Fontaine
Production designer: Sarah Finlay
Costume designer: Michael O’Connor
Music: Dustin O’Halloran, Volker Bertelmann
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Sound designer: Johnnie Burn
Casting: Fiona Weir