London Film Festival 2020: AMMONITE

★ ★ ★

If one were to be slightly facetious, an alternate title for Ammonite might be Portrait of a (Cornish) Lady on Fire.

What rubbish! Mary Anning was from Dorset, I might hear you cry, and you would be correct. Francis Lee’s follow up feature to the low budget but hugely well-received God’s Own Country plays, however, in much the same wheelhouse as Celine Sciamma’s feminine potboiler which has taken the film world by storm over the last year (I need to give it a second watch as it left me powerfully indifferent). Comparisons between both films will be evident, as Lee’s semi-historical narrative dials into the lovely story between Kate Winslet’s brittle palaeontologist Anning and Saorise Ronan’s depressed city wife Charlotte Murchison – a scientist herself in real life but portrayed more for dramatic effect here as the spouse of a paleontology ‘tourist’ and wealthy boor.

Historical accuracy isn’t first and foremost the point of Ammonite.

This is a film about loneliness in many ways, as Mary—one of the few surviving children of an aged mother—finds solace in the incredibly ancient fossils she digs up on the beaches of Lyme Regis, the Jurassic coast indeed, and has exhibited in the British Museum no less. Mary no more covets fame than she seeks the kind of rich yet childish husband Charlotte has hitched her wagon too; fiercely independent & made of iron, she lives her quite chilly, stark coastal existence in 1840’s England with little humour or outward joy. Charlotte, though from a wider world of travel and London social glamour, feels a similar detachment. Only when these women, through circumstance, inhabit the same orbit, does an attraction spring, one as much about emotional need than a physical, same sex yearning.

The problem with Ammonite is that Lee crafts something as brittle and cold as the fossils Mary uncovers, a film so interior it is hard to penetrate, even when warmth translates into desire as Mary & Charlotte shed social inhibitions, clothes and pretence of sexual order – at which point the film transforms briefly into Blue is the Warmest Fossil. This is the second role in a row for Winslet, following Blackbird, where she has played a difficult middle-aged figure and while she invests Mary Anning with genuine pathos, she becomes too difficult to understand as Lee’s script is so sparse he leaves, if anything, too much to inference. Ronan has more of a thankless role, a somewhat naive ingenue of sorts, a role lacking the bite or power Ronan can display at her best. It’s just not on the page, at the end of the day.

Ammonite works best in creating a vivid sense of atmosphere, not just in terms of production design in displaying the bleak mid-19th century coastal world of desolation but also crushing, crashing sound design in which Lee accentuates every ocean wave or fossil scrape, perhaps as a means of allowing Mary to drown out the sadness and loneliness of her existence. In these sensory terms, Ammonite holds a resonance it lacks on a narrative or script basis, never quite reaching the elegant sensuality of Sciamma’s film, and for numerous solid and quietly emotive performances it is a contained, quiet piece of work worth experiencing. It’s just lacks fire, contained more as it is within ice.

A brief word, on a personal level, about the experience of the London Film Festival, which Ammonite officially closed.

This would never traditionally be an event I could take part in, spread as it is across weekdays in October (I don’t work in a job where I can get time off outside of half-term weeks) and takes place in London, so the pandemic afforded an opportunity closed to me, as it would be so many film writers beyond the capital. LFF being jointly translated online, with press access being gifted through a streaming server, was an excellent decision by the organisers that one hopes could survive the pandemic itself. It is hard, given current circumstances, that 2021 will see cinema going back to a pre-Covid normality, so LFF could well be online again. I would welcome this, as it prevents the kind of London-based press exclusivity which so often bars writers from taking part.

If I was to make one tweak, it would be to provide longer access for films online once they have aired at the festival. The window of one hour is just not long enough, if you are busy with other commitments, to watch and write about the film. Extended this to, say, a 24 hour period would be immeasurably more helpful and allow for greater participation. Ammonite, airing on a Saturday morning, was one of the small cluster of pictures I was able to see while maintaining my day job, but I missed many others I would have loved to see—Mangrove, Possessor, Supernova—simply because of the short viewing window. If LFF is to continue widening participation as it has done this year, such a change would only benefit writers engaging on a remote basis.

These issues aside, taking part in the London Film Festival was a real delight and, though not my favourite film I managed to see (that goes to Regina King’s One Night in Miami…), Ammonite served as a fitting farewell. Fingers crossed I’ll be able to take part next year.

Ammonite will be on general release in the U.K. at a later date.

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