Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Fiona Shaw, James McCardle, Gemma Jones
British director’s Lee’s follow-up to his feature debut ‘God’s Own County’ is another unvarnished but affecting love story, loosely inspired the life of 19th century palaeontologist Mary Anning.
Winslet’s Anning is a pioneer in her field who had made many vital finds while combing the Lime Regis coast, but who has been nonetheless been side-lined due to her age and gender. Consequently she has retreated into a gruff shell. She lives with her elderly mother (Jones) and they make a living cleaning and selling fossils to tourists.
Charlotte (Ronan) is the recently-arrived melancholic wife of gentleman Roderick Murchison (McArdle), a member of the Royal Geographical Society who has contacted Mary to teach him how to identify the titular fossils. In a clumsy attempt to buck his wife’s spirits up, he foists her on Mary for companionship when he has to travel to the continent. Initially the two women are resentful and chilly to one another, but after Charlotte becomes sick after an ill-advised swim, Mary nurses her back to health. Later, in a masterfully-calibrated sequence their true feelings for one another begin to register during a musical recital.
Lee conjures up a keen sense of time and place with a minimal, ascetic approach that is complemented by Stéphane Fontaine's slate gray-hued photography. As with Lee’s grim-up-North debut, the dourness almost slips into self-parody but just manages to stay clear.
At times the film feels a little over-mannered, and the visual cues a little too on-the-nose, but it’s elevated above fusty period trappings via the palpable chemistry between Winslet and Ronan, with Mary and Charlotte’s initial attraction conveyed through telling gestures and side glances before giving way to an almost feral passion. Lee’s script also sports some acute observations on class, and the British Museum-set conclusion is enormously satisfying.
Ammonite is released 26th March
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