REVIEW: Ammonite [2020]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 120 minutes
    Release Date: October 16th, 2020 (UK) / November 13th, 2020 (USA)
    Studio: Lionsgate UK / Neon
    Director(s): Francis Lee
    Writer(s): Francis Lee

Fashion moved on. Did it not?

By all accounts a woman long disregarded for her invaluable role in the scientific field of paleontology, Mary Anning deserves substantial recognition. Her first major discovery occurred around age eleven after her brother found an ichthyosaur skull for which she then collected the entirety of its completed skeleton. Because their father died that same year and left the family in dire financial straits, they sold the piece to find its way into London’s British Museum eight years later. Mary then continued her winter expeditions along the shoreline of her Lyme Regis home in Dorset, discovering more “curios” that she and her mother Molly could sell. Despite gender and religion forever relegating her to the fringes, her place in history nevertheless grew well beyond her untimely death from cancer.

It’s interesting then that writer/director Francis Lee would decide to use these facts as window-dressing to an imaginary affair concocted for his latest film Ammonite. He speaks about his fascination with Anning’s (Kate Winslet) story upon learning of her existence when searching for a gift for an ex-boyfriend and yet chose to forgo the usual biography route that would subsequently shed light on what he learned. Lee instead wanted to create a fictional romance wherein one party was someone like her—a woman who replaced “affection and intimacy with work and duty.” How would that play out? What would need to happen for her to open herself up emotionally after the world had all but erased her from her life’s work? Lee sought to depict love’s transformative powers.

The result is a beautiful tale of forbidden affection between two women who for all intents and purposes were trapped from fully embracing their identities during an era that refused to grant them the permission to do so. Does Lee (or anyone else for that matter) know if Mary Anning never married because she was a lesbian? No. Do the letters she and close friend/colleague Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) wrote to one another infer anything more than said friendship? No. Does Lee’s decision to interpret these facts in ways that fulfill his narrative desires ultimately exploit their legacies? Yes. After all, he could have simply written this film without using any real names. Saying it’s Mary and Charlotte thus appears to be more beneficial to him than them.

Fair or not, this truth will always color the finished product. Even if Ammonite were an undeniable masterpiece (it’s not), it would still have to carry this weight. And for what purpose? It’s not for authenticity’s sake. The period aesthetic, historical inferences, and resonant performances supply that all on their own. Utilizing Anning’s life therefore becomes a gimmick that conversely risks making the whole inauthentic because we’ve now been forced to reconcile Lee’s fiction with the facts—something many might not bother to do when it’s easier to render the former as the latter. So while he is providing the general public an in-road towards learning more about this crucial figure within the scientific community, he’s doing so under false pretenses. It’s one step forward, two steps back.

On its own merits the film is handsomely made with wonderful acting and a lived in environment. The pacing is methodically drawn out for better (an overlong sequence where Mary stews in the back row of a music recital while Charlotte and Fiona Shaw‘s Elizabeth Philpot laugh at the front) and worse (the movie’s slow burn build towards feelings abruptly shifts overnight to make you wonder if a chunk of time went missing in the middle), but the resulting quiet, internal emotions prove its greatest strength. For example: we don’t know the details of Mary and Elizabeth’s past upon their initial meeting on-screen, but we can certainly guess from their body language. And Molly’s (Gemma Jones) declining health and increasing jealousy are forever present without saying a word.

The same goes with Charlotte’s “illness” upon landing in Dorset. Her husband Roderick (James McArdle) arrives to learn from Anning (unannounced) while hoping the sea air will help cure what ails her. A quick line callously dismissing Charlotte’s need for comfort gets us thinking they’ve lost a baby—a not uncommon occurrence at the time as corroborated by a tale of woe concerning the Anning siblings—and the malaise that follows upon his departure fits. Between Charlotte’s grief-stricken melancholy and Mary’s frustration about losing her independence by being paid to play babysitter, the rising anxiety all but ensures a breaking point to transform their stubbornness into empathy. The sheer act of compassion from a host caring for her guest lowers both women’s defenses to acknowledge the other’s worth.

From there it’s a whirlwind affair that provides a night versus day comparison from before and after a fever takes hold of Charlotte. We see excitement and passion unencumbered by duty for the first time in both—something that frankly says a lot more about their characters than the gratuitous sex scenes ever could. It’s how they can enjoy each other’s company in public that shines brightest because they’re finally able to break free from the patriarchy’s shadow. That’s also why the final twenty or so minutes prove Ammonite‘s best. This is where real conflict of the soul arises with selfish acts of desire weighed against decorum. Love isn’t merely lustful impulse. It’s a union. Add the wide class-divide separating them and passion may be all they have.

courtesy of Neon

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