In 2017, Francis Lee made his directorial debut with God’s Own Country, a red-raw tale of isolation, sexuality and repression that scooped up numerous awards. He’s now back with his sophomore film – a work that sees him plough similar themes, this time in a Victorian period setting and starring two of the most talented actors around.
Ammonite is based around the life of Mary Anning, a 19th century palaeontologist whose rare finds are now stored in the Natural History Museum. At the time, the scientific community barely recognized her discoveries, although Lee is more interested in exploring Anning’s emotional life. A gruff and slightly embittered woman, Anning lives with her mother (Gemma Jones) in Lyme Regis, part of the so-called ‘Jurassic Coast’.
Little to nothing is known about Mary’s sexuality, so here Lee envisages her being drawn to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the dour and depressed wife of an insufferable scientist named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who practically dumps his spouse onto Mary and her mother as he swans off on business. Gradually, they become closer and passions blossom.
Compared to God’s Own Country, Ammonite feels more reserved, more slow burning, which is perhaps appropriate for its period setting. In some ways, it feels like a tastefully made and respectful work, albeit one that lacks the emotional punch of its predecessor. No doubt, Lee is a talented filmmaker and there’s a lot here to admire – notably the exquisitely rendered details about Victorian life.
The first major movie to be made in Lyme Regis since Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons strolled the promenade in Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Ammonite makes fine use of the setting, with cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, who shot A Prophet, capturing the windswept locales expertly. There’s also room for God’s Own Country co-star Alec Secareanu to pop up as a doctor called into action.
However, it’s Ronan and Winslet who are the central focus, and both deliver nuanced performances – with Winslet particularly offering a heartbreaking exploration of frustration and thwarted ambition. Originally destined for cinemas, Ammonite is now taking the on-demand route, like so many films, which feels like a necessary step right now. However you see it, it’s worth your support.
Ammonite is available on demand. For more details, click here.