BFI LFF 2020

Ammonite review – chilly and robust study of emotional labour

Writer-director Francis Lee reinvents the period romance with a cautious two-hander that emphasises struggle over sensuality

Two women, lonely and exhausted by the very nature of their existence, find each other for a fleeting moment in Francis Lee’s wise and cautious sophomore feature Ammonite. The film is billed as a romantic drama, loosely inspired by the life of British palaeontologist Mary Anning (brought to life here by Kate Winslet), but in practice it feels better sold as a study of alienation, bitterness, weariness, and miscommunication. This is not a love story – it’s a cautionary tale on the potential wreckage of emotional labour.

It would be easy to nod to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire as a reference point, a lesbian period drama released last year which similarly embraced the seaside air as an opportune backdrop for forbidden romance to fizz and thrive. But Ammonite is trying something different, forging a new path to tell the story of the connection between these women. There is no sense of fated, instantaneous mutual attraction when Mary’s eyes meet those of Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan as miserable and erratic as she’s ever been) after her husband, geologist Roderick Murchison, asks Mary to take care of her while he goes away. Instead their curiosity and affection for one another builds slowly. But even then a kiss, a night of torrid intimacy, can’t promise that life afterwards will be forever shared between two lovers. Ammonite understands that devotion can be ephemeral, that love must so often fight to take up space in our lives.

Lee returns to storytelling devices that favour textural world-building – but in ways that often feel uncomfortable rather than sensual. He did this with rugged brilliance in his debut feature, the gorgeous God’s Own Country: it didn’t matter how wet and windy the weather, the love between farmhands Johnny and Gheorghe felt even more rewarding once it was finally consumed.

The way Mary chips away at the outer surface of rocks and scratches her pencil across sketching paper is loud, and visceral – as is the freezing wind, the foamy crashing waves. There is simply not enough space, physical and mental, to bask in the warm, fluid glow of a burgeoning romance we’re so often gifted with in love stories made for the screen. This world is difficult, demanding, and you’ll be lucky if you have enough energy left to be tender to yourself, let alone anyone else.

Winslet plays Mary with stoic resilience. There’s no questioning her conviction, eons away from the doe-eyed Rose Dawson of her twilight years, but it does mean that her connection with Ronan’s pale and often desperate Charlotte often fails to sing. There’s a difference between a romance that is forbidden – and therefore dripping with frustration – and one that isn’t all the way earned.

There’s no questioning Lee’s mastery of the subject, his astute understanding of the ways love can fail us when so bound to our individual preconceptions and priorities. (Although, his reliance on certain allegories, of flapping insects trapped in a tall glass and of pretty birds locked up in cages, feels a touch too elementary). It means nothing for a person to know about your diaries, your wardrobe and your prized possessions if they aren’t able to say when you last cried, or how a surprise might humiliate and hurt you beyond repair.

So often we go to the movies to see love stories that prevail against the odds – stories that let the world melt away with a single kiss. And sometimes, that can happen. But Ammonite asks you to understand those who are so dedicated to their work and their values that there remains a coldness and a strain and a distance that can’t simply be thawed through. It becomes then a test of endurance as to whether you feel strong enough to weather the storm, in hope of catching just one glimmer of sunshine after the clouds have cleared.

Ammonite was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

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