Francis Lee’s Ammonite

The Daily — Sep 15, 2020
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Francis Lee’s Ammonite (2020)

Francis Lee grew up on a farm in West Yorkshire, studied acting, landed a few television and movie roles, and when his day job at a scrapyard allowed it, shot a few short films. In 2017, his first feature, God’s Own Country, a gay love story about a British sheep farmer and a Romanian migrant worker, premiered at Sundance and spent the rest of the year collecting awards from festival juries and critics’ groups. Ammonite, his follow-up, was to have premiered in Cannes before heading to Telluride, but after both of those festivals were cancelled, the film has finally screened in Toronto and will close next month’s festival in London.

Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning, who grew up in the early nineteenth century collecting fossils with her brother in Lyme Regis, a modest town on the southern coast of England. When she was twelve, the siblings discovered one of the first ichthyosaurus skeletons, and she would later be dubbed “the Princess of Paleontology” by the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. But because she was a woman, she was shut out of the emerging scientific societies of the Victorian era and eked out a meager living selling her findings in a tiny boutique.

Geologist Roderick Impey Murchison (James McArdle) arrives at the shop to drop off his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), also a real-life geologist. She’s said to be suffering from melancholia, and Murchison will pay handsomely for Mary to provide the prescribed cure, practicing science beside the open sea. Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison actually were good friends, and Francis Lee imagines that there may have been more to it than that. “Like Céline Sciamma’s recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Ammonite is a passionate love story nourished by the salty sea air and the blissful absence of men,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “And like God’s Own Country, it fully embraces the wild, rustic carnality of its setting, quietly doing away with the sexual coyness and the punitive spirit that have often attended Hollywood’s flirtations with gay romance.”

For the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, Ammonite—the title refers to the extinct cephalopods known for their flat spiral shells—is “one of the finest films of the year . . . For those of us who have long considered the term ‘English erotica’ to be an oxymoron, Lee seems determined to prove us wrong. Ammonite must be the most sensually alive British picture since his 2017 debut.”

Richard Lawson offers a dissenting opinion in Vanity Fair. He finds Ammonite “grim, spare, and so carefully sapped of vim it can barely breathe.” God’s Own Country, he writes, “was also aloof at times, colored in a similar gray palette and guarded with its emotions. But there were true, glorious blooms of sentiment (and conversation!) in that movie too, brilliantly offsetting—and complementing—the brittle, wintry stuff. Those big moments arrive in Ammonite as well, but they’re too little too late, serving only as a glum reminder of what the entirety of the film could have been—and what its two terrific lead actors could have done—had Lee not turned the flame all the way down.”

Lawson is not alone. At the A.V. Club, Katie Rife finds that “the romance here is somewhat bloodless.” For Tomris Laffly, writing for the Playlist, Ammonite “sadly feels too distant, underpowered, and colorless,” and IndieWire’s Kate Erbland agrees that it “never catches fire.” It’s “a film about restrained people that itself is so buttoned-up as to be impenetrable.” But in the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney argues that Ammonite’s “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.”

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