Movie review / ‘Ammonite’ (M)

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Kate Winslet as Mary Anning, left, and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison in “Ammonite”.

“Ammonite” (M) ****

“AMMONITE” is the second feature by English writer/director Francis Lee. His first was “God’s Own Country” (three stars in 2017). Their shared attribute is finding unexpected love with somebody of the same sex.

You might expect that a period film (its principal character died in 1847) about two women finding love would have the cheap-thrill market as its target. Especially if the writer and director is a man.

Behind its enigmatic title, “Ammonite” does unexpected things for its viewers. More later about its one explicit love sequence. Getting there and discovering its aftermath is a film-watching experience that for delicacy and perceptiveness has few equals.

The West Dorset coast near Lyme Regis has yielded a wealth of ammonites, which are fossilised relatives of extinct sea creatures of phylum Mollusca, class Cephalopoda such as the modern Nautilus that lived during the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, a time interval of about 140 million years. 

So what does same-sex loving have to do with fossils? Francis Lee’s film centres around Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Mary’s ground-breaking paleontology was real; rather less so was Charlotte’s. The two certainly knew each other. But their becoming lovers is perhaps a dramatic invention.

The power of “Ammonite” movie comes from the intensity of that invention. Lee tells how it developed in unhurried close-ups showing the growth of the relationship. Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes to Lyme Regis to engage Mary to care for Charlotte while he swans off to the continent after their recent loss of a child. Our first glimpse of the marriage is one-sided, portending a significant change when Mary is freed of her husband’s dominating control. 

The film’s dramatic power focuses on how the two women interact after a less-than-promising first meeting. Winslet portrays Mary’s dominance with sympathetic strength. Charlotte yearns to be free not of her wealthy husband but of his confining control of her life. The film treats the sexual resolution to their separate yearnings with gentle respect, great visual beauty and unchallengeable credibility.

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"Ammonite" (M) ****
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Dougal Macdonald
“CityNews” film reviewer

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