Ammonite ★★★★

Amazon Prime Video

Director Francis Lee’s eagerly awaited follow-up to his fantastic debut God’s Own Country is best approached as an atmospheric, immersive mood piece, buoyed by two excellent central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet. Its slow pace and steadfast commitment to showing rather than telling will undoubtably make it a tough sell, and this bears out in the majority of the commentary I have seen around the film, which typically expresses admiration for the filmmaking but disappointment at the sense of emotional distance from the characters. It is also quite unfortunate that Ammonite happened to be released not long after A Portrait of a Lady On Fire. With both films centering around forbidden sapphic romance in a 19th-century setting as well as themes of sexual repression, isolation and loneliness the two were always going to be compared and, clearly, Ammonite was never going to compete toe-to-toe with a film already being hailed as one of the finest of the decade. But in spite of this, there is still something about Ammonite that resonates with me, that pulls me in. It has a difficult-to-properly-describe sense of brittleness, of fragility, as though at any moment the whole world might come crashing down around our protagonists. If nothing else, Lee is a phenomenal filmmaker, capturing the Jurassic Coast in all of its bleak, wind-swept majesty. As with God’s Own Country, Lee ensures that the setting- in this case, the stony beaches, sheer cliffs and cobble-street towns of Lyme Regis- is more than simply background fodder, but rather an integral part of the story, perhaps even a character all of its own. There is a sense of realness, of true dirt-under-the-fingernails (literally in some cases) to this tough, hardscrabble world and the people within it. The sound mixing and sound design is particularly impressive, at times almost drowning out what the characters are saying. And the impeccable costume design only adds to the sense of immersion.

Both Winslet and Ronan are excellent throughout, convincingly portraying a relationship which evolves from mild irritation (Winslet’s Mary Anning, an archaeologist of some renown but respected little by her male peers, is landed with Ronan’s Charlotte to “look after” following an implied bereavement) to intrigue, to lust and then deeper, more complex feelings. Winslet is especially good here, delivering a masterclass of show-don’t-tell acting in which not a single facial expression or body movement is wasted (a scene in which Mary observes Charlotte talking to another woman is especially well-done- without a word, we see jealousy, anger and self-loathing etched across her face). If it wasn’t for her superlative performance in TV’s Mare of Easttown earlier this year, I would say that Ammonite is the best of her career. I also really like the supporting cast, including Gemma Jones as Mary’s mother, Molly, a woman bowed down by grief following the deaths of eight of her ten children (a reminder that improvements to child mortality rates are a relatively recent phenomenon), as well as the ever-dependable Fiona Shaw as a possible old flame of Mary’s. Crucially, these performances ensure that the film, whilst cold and unyielding on the surface, suggests a world of history and deep reserves of emotion lying just underneath.

The lack of narrative drive and meandering nature of the storytelling means that Ammonite does rather fizzle out by its end, which is perhaps a shame- although for me, this is a film very much about the experience of inhabiting this world alongside these characters, and on that count I feel that it succeeds. It might not quite have the emotional gut-punches of God’s Own Country or Portrait of a Lady On Fire, but taken on its own terms I think that this quiet, hauntingly beautiful film has a lot to offer.

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