Francis Lee’s Ammonite

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.”

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