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United Kingdom 2020
Directed by
Francis Lee
120 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


With Ammonite we are back in the world of Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) which was also set in Lyme Regis, a seaside town in Dorset on the South-West coast of England in the mid-nineteenth century (Lee’s film is set a decade or so earlier). It is a connection which no doubt Lee intended and to which he does justice. From production values to performances Ammonite is a beautifully well-crafted film.  

Based on the life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a pioneering palaeontologist whose work, as we see neatly expressed in the opening scene, was appropriated by the scientific establishment from whose circles women were excluded. In many ways a classic crotchety spinster she had no time for manners and mores that restricted women to subservient roles of wife and mother. Instead she eked out a living from selling her fossil finds. One day a London gentleman scientist (James McArdle) comes into the shop she runs with her aged mother (Gemma Jones who looks like she steeped out of contemporary engraving) full of enthusiasm for Mary’s work. He asks if, in return for a substantial stipend, he could leave his chronically depressed wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) with Mary so that the latter could benefit from the sea air and perhaps take an interest in Mary’s work. It is clear from this set-up where the film is going. The only question is how far Lee is going to take it. The answer is, surprisingly far.

If you Google images of Mary and Charlotte (or think of Queen Victoria) it is difficult to imagine the two women in the transports of Sapphic love. After all, there is no reason why sex should not also be as socially conditioned as any human interaction, perhaps never so much so as in the sexually-repressed Victorian era. But Lee, and the lesbian relationship is purely speculative on his part (and a notorious male fantasy), has them going at it like the two young women in Blue Is the Warmest Colour (2013). Of course no one is going to pay good money to watch a couple of old maids cleaning rocks or doing their needlepoint by the fireside but personally at least I could have done with more implication and less demonstration. A cut to waves pounding the shore would have done me fine particularly as an earlier scene in which the two women grunt and pant while trying to dislodge a fossil is a perfectly satisfactory metaphor for their supposed later tussles between the sheets.

If Winslet and Ronan are but distant 21st century interpretations of the real historical figures they are also perfectly cast – Winslet’s Mary is care-worn but fiercely independent, Ronan’s much younger Charlotte guarded but intrigued by a woman whose type she has never encountered before. Their love is understandable and, more importantly, deserved. Ammonite is probably not a film you'll want to watch with your maiden aunt but it is a fine romance.

FYI: If you enjoyed Lee's film it would be worth checking out a Gallic instance of a thematically-related relationship, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (2019).




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