OTTAWA’S CINEMA FOR INTERNATIONAL AND INDEPENDENT MOVIES

Ammonite

Official selection at Cannes, Telluride & Toronto Film Festivals

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Forbidden passion in period dress has been the source of some visually stunning, emotionally enduring romances. Think of Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s classic, still-stirring The Piano, walking on the beach in her flowing 19th-Century dress, and rushing off to see her rough-around-the-edges lover. Or, from last year, the two 18th-Century women who fall in love in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. We can add to that list Francis Lee’s exquisite Ammonite, with Kate Winslet as the 19th-Century fossil collector Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, whose husband travels abroad and leaves her to recover her health by the sea.

Poster for the romantic drama AmmoniteIn Ammonite, based on real historical characters, director Lee depicts Mary and her world in rich detail. She combs the lonely beach and rocky cliffs for fossils, her clothes and fingernails muddy, while the sea rages and the wind howls. The background sounds are as perfectly devised as the images, which range from the crystalline brightness of the shore and sky to the shadowy, candlelit rooms in the small house Mary shares with her mother.

The historical Anning made important discoveries that men took credit for, as the film notes in a deft opening sequence, when the skull of an ichthyosaur is put on view in the British Museum.

The film picks up with Mary eking out a living selling souvenir fossils to tourists. Winslet makes her stern and brittle but immensely sympathetic, accustomed to disappointment and expecting little more than survival. The contained, potent performance is one of Winslet’s best.

Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a would-be paleontologist, arrives with his delicately pretty wife (Ronan) in tow. We discover through a brief conversation that Charlotte has lost a child. “I want my bright, funny, clever wife back,” Roderick complains. He pays Mary to look after Charlotte and take her fossil hunting while he is gone.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in AmmoniteWhen Charlotte becomes ill and collapses in Mary’s shop, she moves into the cottage. We know, of course, where the relationship is headed, but not how. With some counterintuitive moves, Lee keeps us guessing about who will make the first tentative advance. A couple of explicit sex scenes leave no doubt about the overpowering, long-thwarted physical attraction between them. But the film gives equal emphasis to how the women change, as Charlotte comes to life and Mary drops her protective shell.

One of Lee’s brilliant choices is to refuse to put a soppy romantic gloss on the affair. He suggests instead that passion can blind lovers to a true understanding of each other as easily as it can open their eyes. Another smart choice was casting the affecting Gemma Jones as Mary’s mother, whose own heart-wrenching story plays out gently. It doesn’t spoil the ending to say that the final image returns to Mary’s ichthyosaur in the British Museum, where she and Charlotte look at each other from opposite sides of the glass display case. It is a quiet scene as lovely and as brutally honest as the rest of Ammonite.

★★★★★ (out of five)

– Caryn James, BBC.com
 

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