BFI #LFF 2020: AMMONITE Film Review

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite (2020)

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan’s moving and unguarded performances impress in AMMONITE, Francis Lee’s forbidden-love story set in 1820s England

3.5 out of 5 stars

British writer and Director Francis Lee follows GOD’S OWN COUNTRY with AMMONITE, a solemn love story sparked by Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Set on the overcast coast of Lyme Regis in the 1820s, AMMONITE tells the fictionalised life story of amateur palaeontologist Mary Anning (Katie Winslet) who lives a solitary, nearly silent life with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones). When condescending London scientist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes into her shop, he offers Anning a substantial cash payment to leave his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) behind to lodge with Anning for a while, so that the sea air can cure her “melancholia”, but the pair soon develop an intense relationship that alters both of their lives forever.

From the outset, AMMONITE feels oppressively stark, tonally reinforced by a visual palette that’s practically monochromatic. Taking full of advantage of the coastal landscape, Lee once again displays his ability to convey vivid textures and a strong sense of place. There are some great landscape shots and excellent framing, aided by Stéphane Fontaine’s muted cinematography. The lack of a score also allows for the sound design to really come through, making for an intense, immersive viewing experience.

Much of the film’s success lies in Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan’s moving and unguarded performances. The chemistry between the unlikely pair is electric, their passion co-existing with the cool, calm subtlety in which Lee inspects the domestic circumstances in which their paths crossed.

Ronan is excellent here, displaying a vulnerability, unlike anything we’ve ever seen from her before. But the film really belongs to Winslet, who plays Anning as a tough, capable but careworn woman, who has grown accustomed to not declaring her feelings. From the outset, Lee trusts Winslet conveys an incredible amount without dialogue and that trust pays off, Winslet delivering one of the best performances of her career.

Yet, AMMONITE isn’t a film that will appeal to everyone. This is a slow-burner and its well over into an hour of the running time before any physical manifestation between the women arrives.

The final scene is also likely to frustrate some, Lee leaving the audience in suspense as to where the characters go from here.

But, at its heart, AMMONITE is a love story and one of great intimacy and candour. The film explores the complexities of being a woman in 1820s England and the equally complex relationship between women who are from different walks of life.

AMMONITE screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 17 October 2020.