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Review: Ammonite

November 13, 2020

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The greatest challenge facing writer/director Francis Lee’s Ammonite, which serves as a companion piece of sorts to his acclaimed romantic drama God’s Own Country, has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather has to do with unfair comparisons to the recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

No, Ammonite isn’t as good as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and yes, to be fair, there are a fair number of similarities between the two films. Both are period pieces that take place by the sea, and both are love stories between two women who at first are forced to be together, but find close companionship with each other.

But if you can look beyond these comparisons, you will find that Ammonite is a worthwhile film in its own right. In fact, it’s very good, carried by a pair of excellent performances from the Oscar-winning actress Kate Winslet and the Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan, who are both captivating to watch.

The film is set in the 1840s, and is loosely based on the true story of self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet). Mary lives in the small English town of Lyme Regis, and spends her days alone on the beach searching for fossils, which she sells to tourists at the small seaside shop that she operates with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones). But Mary’s routine is upended when a man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes into the shop.

Roderick is a fellow paleontologist who is curious to know more about her work, and he brings with him a wife, Charlotte (Ronan), whose quiet obedience around her husband suggests deep unhappiness in her marriage. Charlotte is said to be suffering from “melancholia,” and it’s been recommended that she take in the sea air in order to recover. When Roderick must leave town, he has a proposition for Mary; he will pay her to keep Charlotte in her care until she feels well enough to return home.

Mary is used to solitude, and at first she is bothered by having someone else tag along on her fossil-hunting expeditions, especially a society woman such as Charlotte, whose initial unease with spending the day in the mud and sand is palpable. But caring for Charlotte gives Mary a new sense of purpose, and the two gradually start to form a deeper, more physical relationship. Watching Winslet’s Mary soften up, as Ronan’s Charlotte starts to open up, is what gives the film much of its emotional pull.

Winslet’s performance is a quietly effective one. With minimal dialogue, she reveals much of Mary’s guarded nature through body language, and her subtle, understated work is rich with nuance. Ronan also shows a much quieter side of herself here, barely saying a word during her first few scenes. It’s a stark difference from the spirited performances she gave in films like Lady Bird and Little Women, and another compelling testament to her remarkable range as an actor. The two actors reveal a great, almost unspoken sense of chemistry together that becomes the film’s defining feature.

One of the most welcome aspects of Ammonite is that the film doesn’t devolve into melodrama. Lee instead opts to fashion the story into a naturalistic and patiently observed character drama, that feels like a female-led mirror image of his countryside gay romance God’s Own Country. The film is more focused on capturing quiet moments across its relaxed two hour running time than it is on delivering major plot developments, and it’s all the better for it. By the end, Ammonite reveals itself to be something quite lovely, closing on a tender and touching note.

Ammonite is opening in select theatres across Canada today, please check local listings. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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