With huge stars Kate Winslet and Saorsie Ronan in period dress, and coming from as prestigious a berth as the London Film Festival’s Closing Night (virtual) Gala, you might expect Ammonite to be be challenging for all the awards this year.
The fact that it isn’t tells you something, but not everything. Curious, moving and raw – and that’s just Kate Winslet’s hands… Ammonite is a wild, windy exploration of the untamed female heart, based on the real-life of Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning who roamed the Jurassic coast around Lyme Regis where she sold her fossils in a rough shop, to tourists and to the British Museum, where her discoveries were displayed but credited to others: to men, let’s be honest.
Still, her renown brings the Murchisons into her life, pompous palaeontologist husband Roderick (played by James Mcardle) who is seeking a pastime for his recuperating young wife, Charlotte, and fancies she might help Mary hunt fossils while he goes off on a tour of 1850s Europe. Careful what you wish for, Roderick..
What you’ll remember the film for are some explosive sex scenes between Kate Winslet and Saorsie Ronan, shot in naturalistic close up – this is a very unadorned British costume drama, painting a harsh picture of coastal life and female loneliness (ironically, for a film so yearning not to be a traditional costume pic, its Michael O’Connor’s costumes that have earned the film’s BAFTA nomination).
For all its sex, frankly the film could have done with a bit more warmth and romance – like the fossils, it’s down to the bare bones – as if it doesn’t WANT to endear itself to anyone. It’s a slog to watch at times, almost punishing…and I think it got the better of Francis Lee who made it. It’s only his second film, after the success of God’s Own Country, which also featured some very chilly homosexual sex and dry stone walling – he likes rocks and wind, does Francis.
There’s a passion and intelligence guiding this prickly film but a spark is missing – to compare it to Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is perhaps to highlight the difference between British and French cinema.
However, Ammonite does shine a harsh light on Winslet’s almost feral performance, one of her most eye-catching and committed for years, chaffed to bleeding by the stones, by society and the salty wind, buffeted by love and facing the stark reality for 19th century working women.