Film recommendation: Ammonite

Ammonite, the second feature from Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) is now available on Amazon Prime and is a gentle yet harsh, deep and earthy yet sensual film which merits more than one viewing.

In 1840s Dorset, self-taught fossil-hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is now in her 40s, ignored by the (male) scientific world, reduced to selling her finds to tourists to support herself and her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). Pompous Londoner Roderick Murchison entrusts his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to Anning’s tutelage, to distract Charlotte from her depression after what we surmise to be the loss of a baby.

Initially Anning is resentful of this soft Londoner, trying to befriend her across a social chasm and despite their very different personalities. But when Charlotte falls ill and Mary is forced to nurse her back to health, they form a tender bond which develops into a passionate love affair. Charlotte ignites tenderness in Anning’s depressed and closed-in heart while Charlotte is inspired by Mary’s  intelligence and no-nonsense approach to life, so different from the society women she usually encounters.

The film is a thoughtful drama which is a love story with some very sexy sex scenes – reputedly filmed on Ronan’s birthday as a gift from Winslet (!!) – but also a beautiful meditation on depression, class, the status of women’s work, love and the ability to give and receive affection. It is a film of many layers, which reveal themselves slowly and subtly: Gemma Jones’s Molly has lost numerous babies and tends her china figures as though they were children still living; the film starts with a perspective on women’s work and the theme runs through the film; and we see the boredom and emptiness of many women’s lives – because their work is not enriching or because they are not allowed to work (depending on class). The love affair is a key part of the story, and changes both women’s lives, but he film suggests that love, or perhaps passion, are not in themselves enough for a life to be well-lived.

The two leads give magnificent performances, ably supported by James McArdle (currently on stage in London as Macbeth with Saoirse Ronan as Lady Macbeth) and Gemma Jones and Alec Secareanu, both returning to work with Francis Lee after God’s Own Country. The many fans of God’s Own Country will see echoes and resonances of that film, but it is a magnificent piece of filmmaking in its own right and repays repeat viewings – which you can now enjoy through streaming.

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