★★★★★ - TELEGRAPH
- Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan and a gorgeous, forbidden affair -
This 19th-century romance, set on the wild Jurassic Coast, is a tale of women struggling to find themselves – and love – in a man’s world.
The pioneering fossil hunter Mary Anning never wed, but for much of her life lived with her mother in Lyme Regis, on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. In 1825, she befriended Charlotte Murchison, a married gentlewoman who had come to study the geological trove on Anning’s doorstep, and the pair went on to become lifelong intimates. The Yorkshire-born director Francis Lee has put two and two together, and come up with one of the finest films of the year: a shiveringly passionate period piece which describes an affair between the women, conducted in small, low-lit rooms and on pebbled shorelines under pewter skies.
Ammonite, which stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as fictionalised versions of Anning and Murchison, premiered last night at the Toronto Film Festival, after being selected for the cancelled edition of Cannes earlier this year. Lee’s film takes its name from the extinct marine mollusc whose spiral form waits silently inside a rock, until someone with the requisite patience, sensitivity and luck comes along, and manages to coax them into the light.
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, God’s Own Country: it’s the kind of film that does things to your fingertips, and makes you want to buy candles.
We first meet Winslet’s Mary by the flicker of tallow, as she rises early to scour the coast for specimens uncovered by the elements overnight. Picking her way goatishly over the boulders, she spots a promising stone protruding from a steep bank, and scrambles up to it, her hands feeling for purchase in the mud. She slips and falls, but the stone falls with her, splitting on the ground below, and exposing the familiar coiled shell inside it. Winslet’s satisfied snort tells you everything you need to know: her finds may be for sale, but the only respect she seeks to earn is her own.
Not that anyone else’s – save, perhaps, that of her elderly mother (Gemma Jones) – is obviously available. The Geographical Society of London is a boys’ club, and those fossils of Mary’s that have reached the British Museum, including the first correctly identified ichthyosaur, are displayed there under other, male names. One Society member, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, navigating a tricky role with skill), comes to Lyme Regis with his young, sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan): he’s after a spot of paleontological coaching, but soon decides Mary would make a better companion for his spouse, who has been prescribed “rest, sea bathing and a little stimulation.” Mary, it turns out, is just what the doctor ordered.
Everything is gradual at first. Winslet and Ronan don’t have chemistry so much as a kind of mesmerising tectonic accord, and slowly but surely, the two converge. Ronan somehow plays Charlotte as if she were lit from within, and getting brighter every day – her character’s steady emergence from what could be a severe depressive episode is straightforwardly gorgeous to behold. When she pulls on a stunning green off-the-shoulder evening dress for a cello recital – hosted by the town’s European doctor, played by God’s Own Country’s Alec Secareanu – she and Mary exchange an excited look that breaks like sunshine through their clouds of reserve.
But Mary’s reserve remains, and is not to be underestimated. She recognises her feelings from an earlier time in her life, and dreads where they may lead. We’re given to understand that there was a previous flirtation, and more, with Elizabeth Philpot, another local fossil collector: a terrific two-scene role for Fiona Shaw. When Mary first visits Elizabeth’s cottage, all we hear is a lone birdsong and Winslet’s footsteps on the path, and you find yourself instinctively holding your breath, even before the scene shows its hand.
As a filmmaker, Lee is thrillingly attuned to the intimate possibilities of sound, at times using it to put us in the room with his characters and at others inside their heads. At the recital, the music continues to resound in Mary’s ears long after she leaves in a panic brought on when she recognises the gulf between her and Charlotte’s social standings. And when the two make love, in scenes that are sexually frank but by no means gratuitous, their quickened breath mingles with the rhythmic shushing of the tide. The flame on their nightstand gutters. For a second, I swore I’d blown it myself.
- Robbie Collin, THE TELEGRAPH
Ammonite is now playing at Light House Cinema!