An immersive and heart-wrenching film
While much of the western world, specifically the United States, have built their success and riches on the backs of people of color, the suppression and exploitation of women to build up men’s success has also been prominent. It is only with the more inclusive and revisionist history, filling in the gaps, that is being taught today that these stories of robbed credit and exploitation are being brought to light. These historiographical movements, however, are in their nascent stages and thus it might be hard for many to recognize the name of Mary Anning, an English female archeologist in the 19th century whose discoveries and work was pioneering regarding prehistoric marine fossils. Her story has been brought to the screen with Ammonite (2020).
Ammonite follows Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) as an independent but downtrodden woman, who sells her fossils and discoveries in a drab shop in order to make ends meet. These are then taken by wealthy male archeologists who label the discoveries as their own. A young archeologist named Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle) sidles into Mary’s shop one day, having heard of her skill in the scientific community, he brings along his depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), whom he parks in Mary’s small village of Lyme, and urges Mary to take her out on walks, hoping her emotional slump goes away. The two women are initially reluctant to enter each other’s graces, but slowly come to the realization of their mutual liking.
Ammonite is only the second feature film from Brit Francis Lee, whose previous critical darling God’s Own Country (2017), proved a great success. For it only being Lee’s second film, he has quickly developed a clear-cut style and mastery of his skills. Ammonite will undoubtedly be compared by many to Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), but while narratively the two might be similar, tonally they are completely different. Portrait of a Lady on Fire had a bubbly warmth of French emotional exploration, while Ammonite carries the distinct chilly and tragic journey of an English play. As such, Lee is very focused on creating an atmosphere for his performers.
Ammonite is spectacularly shot, with a true restraint behind the camera from director of photography Stephane Fontaine. Lee isn’t afraid to have his shots linger on empty spaces too long, and Fontaine is able to capture both a stillness and roaring unease in his visuals. But the technical aspect that most amazed me from Ammonite is the sound. It is not often that sound design is talked about when regarding a film, and I find that to be slightly unfair. It is certainly one of the most important elements of horror, but in other films it can be employed to give an unparalleled level of immersion. This is exactly how it’s used in Ammonite. The sound of the ruffling of the fabric of Mary’s clothes was of such a design that I felt the actual discomfort and itch of the cloth; the creaking of a chair or of floorboards helped imbue a sense of caving emptiness in the cramped quarters where Mary lives; even the whipping of the wind makes your lips feel chapped. And of course the steady beat of the ocean is captured and maintained throughout nearly the entire film, proving to be the true soundtrack of Ammonite and emulating the disparate confusion, anger, and passion seen on screen.
Lee, who also wrote the film, is the type of director whose of the mind that dialogue can sometimes get in the way of visual communication (oh how Aaron Sorkin would disagree). Being gifted with such talented actresses as Ronan and Winslet, Lee is able to craft some of the best non-verbal storytelling of the year. I agree with Lee regarding how silence and simple gestures and glances can transmit a character’s emotions much better than a speech, but you of course need performers with such capabilities, and Lee certainly has them. Winslet and Ronan are some of, if not the, finest actresses of their respective generations. Instead of pitting them against each other, however, Lee decides to have them play a balancing act. Both Winslet and Ronan have to encapsulate a sense of torment that both their characters are feeling, yet Winslet does so with a certain stoicism and resolute strength, while Ronan’s character is delicately crumbling from within. It is these poses at the beginning of the film that make their understanding and discovery of each other all the more gratifying and understandable for viewers later on. Both actresses’ performances are spectacular in how they are forced to carry out a conversation throughout various scenes… without saying a word. It is in these silences that performers are truly discovered for their caliber, and Ronan and Winslet go above and beyond any expectations.
Ammonite’s central focus seems to be on exploring the female experience and how it has been distorted and cornered in a cruel way. Mary is an example of a woman who shuns away the expectations that society has put on her gender and tries to make her own way in the world. Charlotte, meanwhile, is a woman who has tried to go by the rules set out by the male-dominated society, of being thin, pale, delicate, and child-rearing. Yet both seem to be deemed “failures” by both the eyes of society and their own. It forces both women into a depression that is only salvaged when they find solace and support in each other. But instead of taking the film on a more traditional and cheesy romantic route, of how “love conquers all,” Lee chooses to pose even further complicating questions. How can a woman find self-worth if both professional and social circles denigrate her? How can one find a sense of independence if being emotionally dependent on another? It is these complexities and contradictions that make the viewing of Ammonite a fascinating watch, and a great conversation topic for afterwards.
Ammonite is a captivating watch, looking at the impossibilities that the female experience was forced to undergo (and continues to). Lee is in absolute mastery of his medium, using a level of restraint and technical prowess that envelops viewers into the chilly seaside town of Lyme. Ronan and Winslet are given a challenging emotional journey and task to undergo, and yet they are able to do so in a heart-wrenching fashion leaving viewers’ minds, hearts, and senses buzzing after viewing.