Release Date – 26th March 2020, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 57 minutes, Director – Francis Lee
A struggling palaeontologist (Kate Winslet) forms a relationship with a city wife (Saoirse Ronan) who she finds herself looking after on the Lyme Regis coast after tragedy strikes her.
Despite the sound of the crashing tide, the movement of the scattered rocks and pebbles that make up the shore, the occasional seagull and other sounds of the Lyme Regis coast of the 1840’s such noise fades into the background as the loudest, and calmest, element on screen takes centre stage. It’s the relationship between Kate Winslet’s struggling Mary Anning (a real-life palaeontologist) and Saoirse Ronan’s married gentlewoman Charlotte Murchison that takes prime placement in writer-director Francis Lee’s follow-up to his acclaimed feature debut God’s Own Country.
Lee takes the real-life friendship of the two figures and turns it into a tale of personal awakening and development. Initially Mary seems a somewhat disgruntled figure, rushing to ensure that she gets by – supporting both herself and her mother (Gemma Jones) – and never getting the credit for her geological findings; a man’s name always being placed below her discoveries in prime museum places. Meanwhile Charlotte is quiet, perhaps scared, after suffering a miscarriage. She herself is used to city life, the rougher landscapes of coastal Dorset pebble beaches and getting her hands dirty is a foreign world. Yet, she finds herself entrusted in the care of Anning with her husband (James McArdle) believing that this will act as a form of calming therapy for her.
The technical design of the piece forms an authentic world. While grim and grey there’s plenty of candlelight throughout. Such technical elements make for something that’s visually engaging if the spark of the relationship isn’t always there. While the pair of central performances are fantastic – Winslet in particular – the romantic aspect doesn’t always appear to feel as natural as other elements of the film. While for the most part it’s a tenderly dealt with course, told from eyes that appear to simply watch and allow for the events to unfold, there are moments where the embraces of the two don’t quite have a completely romantic feel.
Yet, it’s testament to Lee’s efforts, and of course those of Ronan and Winslet, that the film still holds up and the interest of the viewer is held. The narrative looks at how the Anning and Murchison grow in confidence and emotional expression around each other. A smile returns to the face of Winslet’s otherwise stone-faced focus, trudging through her life of seriousness, as Ronan’s character begins to discover and get involved with her new surroundings, colour coming back to her face after spending many pale-faced days in a small, dark bedroom. It extends some warmth amidst the environment in which they find themselves largely residing in throughout the film. Anning in particular finds herself encouraged to get her name credited on her discoveries, alongside earning proper pay for them, sometimes a late blooming element. But, such points can sometimes have the ability, much like the noise of the area, to fade into the background thanks to the course of the film and the top performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
Winslet and Ronan are fantastic in Ammonite, a drama that focuses more on the growth of it’s characters rather than the romance that causes it. The spark might not always be there, but the look of the piece and the performances within it more than help carry things along during such moments.