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Review: ‘Ammonite’ leaves its rose-coloured glasses at the door (Includes first-hand account)

In an age where homosexuality wasn’t acknowledged, coming to terms with one’s needs and desires was difficult. At the same time, at least for women, it could be veiled as a very close friendship that people were less likely to question. Recently, a number of films have highlighted historical tales of female relationships that existed under these circumstances, and were simultaneously strained by the need to keep up appearances and abide by social norms. In Ammonite, two women are reborn via their love for each other, even though their affair begins with an expiry date.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was a skilled, 19th century paleontologist. However, due to her gender, she was not accepted by her peers — instead, men come to her small coastal shop to buy her discoveries and claim them as their own. One day a young man arrives with his mourning wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), seemingly in awe of Mary’s talents. When he must return to the city, he asks Mary to spend time with Mrs. Murchison during her convalescence and try to busy her with fossil hunting on the shore. After a rocky start, the pair embark on an intense relationship that significantly changes both of their lives.

Writer/director Francis Lee is building a portfolio of films that depicts romantic relationships started under difficult conditions. In 2017, his tale of two men finding love on a farm in God’s Own Country was raw and moving. Now, he shows the power finding love can have on two unhappy people, even if they must keep their feelings secret. Mary has been beaten down by the lack of recognition for her work, making her curt and uninterested in most people. Charlotte is clearly depressed, and becoming less and less enamoured by her husband whose idea of helping her is keeping her at arm’s length. At first, neither woman is thrilled about the arrangement thrust upon them both by the husband. However, unforeseen circumstances force them closer and push them to confront their growing feelings for each other.

As in Lee’s previous picture, the intimacy shared between Mary and Charlotte is raw and authentic. Their first sexual encounter is spontaneous and feverish. The camera captures their need for each other, while not being intrusive or trying to overly romanticize their visceral passion. In the moment, their love seems all-conquering and never-ending as it lifts both their spirits and opens a part of their heart never touched before. However, when Charlotte’s husband puts an inevitable end to their affair, neither woman fights the separation. Unexpectedly, the story doesn’t end there. What follows doesn’t necessarily provide closure, but it does create possibilities with unknown potential.

Winslet and Ronan are beautiful in this movie as they both take on-screen risks with their portrayal of these women’s self-discovery. Their May-December romance adheres to the formula with fervent attraction followed by a cooling off period caused by one person trying to change the other. Both actresses authentically depict their characters’ transition from melancholy to joy, while never betraying their core personalities. This is especially true in a scene in which Charlotte boasts about Mary to a man the latter deems undeserving of her expertise. Their performances carry the film and Lee’s apt avoidance of any heavy-handedness makes it an engaging experience.

Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Jones

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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