The temptation will be too great for some critics to resist proclaiming, “Ammonite is dynamite!,” as in some respects it is, specifically in the way it resembles a hand grenade thrown into the midst of an otherwise decorous, serious-minded 19th century British period piece.
James Ivory might be proud and even jealous of the way writer-director Francis Lee takes the Anglo art house tradition of quality to an uncustomary level of sexual frankness, an aspect that will remind many viewers of last year’s similarly themed French favorite Portrait of a Lady on Fire. In all events, the prospect of watching Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a couple of quite explicit sack scenes will be enough to attract some viewers who might not otherwise be drawn to a story rooted in the angst of a mid-19th century British paleontologist.
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Lee hit the spotlight three years ago when he won the Sundance World Drama best director award for his debut feature God’s Own Country, which focused on a same-sex relationship between two young men in rural Northern England. This time he travels nearly two centuries back in time but to another part of the country, surf-pounded Lyme Regis in West Dorset, where Lee, cinematographer Stephane Fontaine (Elle, A Prophet) and production designer Sarah Finlay immediately establish the extremes between the warm, intimate indoor spaces and the wild, untamable outdoor world. Throughout the film there is an acute sense of the tactile — the ever-raging sea; the dangerous surrounding rocks; the textures of the metal, wood and paper; the fabrics of clothing; what people eat.
But the most important natural items in the vicinity are ammonites, extinct marine mollusks that have fossilized into remarkable spiral-shaped shells that can be found and dug out of rocks. This is a specialty of Mary Anning (Winslet), a stern, whip-smart middle-aged woman of very few words who’s hit a thin patch; life is tough, not least of all because for women to pursue her particular specialty is unheard of, and she’s reduced to selling her “sea creature relics” as curiosities.
Mary exudes a dour unhappiness and a disdain for others that sends a signal designed to keep people at a great distance; she’s remote and curt, a flashing red light. Nonetheless, the wealthy Roderick Merchison (James McArdle) engages her to help him look for ammonites and introduces her to his young wife Charlotte (Ronan), who clearly is suffering from something; she’s all but catatonic.
Proclaiming that “I want my funny, clever wife back,” Roderick engages the impoverished older woman to look after Charlotte while he travels on business for a month. Both women protest the arrangement, but it’s an offer neither can refuse. Still, a less-happy baby-sitter than Mary you’ve never seen.
But while Mary remains stern, cracks begins to appear in her dour visage; the older woman rubs some ointment on her charge, sketches her as she sleeps and, when they establish a bond over how profoundly tired they both feel, they decide to sleep in the same bed.
Still, Mary remains so tightly wound up that you know the emotional dam will have to break at some point. Shifting gears herself after attending a musical evening, Charlotte begins singing Mary’s praises, gushing that, “You were the most fascinating person there tonight — and the most beautiful!” Her flirtations lead to kissing, at which point the older woman takes control.
What comes next is not played out to its conclusion, but it’s quite clear what has happened; suddenly, Mary has an appetite. Any experienced viewer will imagine that, under these circumstances, only distress and tragedy can follow, but it’s not as simple as that. About 15 minutes later, writer-director Lee serves up a sex scene that’s far more explicit than the first, one quite rare indeed in which two big-name talents are involved.
Assuredly, things do go south when Roderick finally returns to fetch his wife, but not in a way one can possibly anticipate. The final stretch unfortunately doesn’t pack the dramatic oomph of much that has come before, nor does Lee’s handling of it quite possess the tactile immediacy of the earlier scenes. All the same, it’s an entirely plausible end to a very unusual story.
Did anything resembling what is dramatized in Ammonite happen between the real people whose lives are so thoroughly speculated about here? Does it matter? The careers of both Mary and Charlotte, which were impressive given the constraints upon women at the time, are significantly documented, and there is at this point no evidence to suggest that anything intimate happened between them.
But, then, why would there be? In fact, the one detail in the film that struck me as completely false was when Mary lit up a cigarette. Perhaps this was technically possible, but in general cigarettes were not commonly smoked — even by men — in Britain until after the Crimean War, in the 1850s, a decade after the events in the film are meant to take place.
No matter how angry, frustrated, professionally blocked and otherwise out of sorts the two women in Ammonite are, they make for unusual and compelling subjects for a film that should generate considerable excitement and debate after it can finally make its way into the world at large.
Ammonite screened Friday at the Toronto Film Festival. Neon has set a November 9 release date.
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