Ammonite – London Film Festival 2020 – Film Review

The highly anticipated Ammonite, as Francis Lee’s second feature, was the closing night film for the London Film Festival 2020. Ammonite portrays a fictional account of palaeontologist Mary Anning, which has been criticised by some due to its introduction of a fictionalised LGBT love affair in Mary’s life. Whilst Ammonite is beautifully filmed there are the obvious parallels to Portrait of a Lady on Fire, directed by Céline Sciamma, which is equally a period drama examining the constraints placed on women within a LGBT context. As such, there is a sense of déjà vu within Ammonite given its release one year later. However, Ammonite does not contain the similar level of intensity, subtlety and stylistic flair as Portrait of a Lady on Fire does.

Where Ammonite succeeds is through its extension of the remoteness of its rural environment to the personality of Mary Anning, as the film is set in the windy Dorset location of the Jurassic coast. Mary takes pleasure in her work and is dedicated to her craft discovering fossils. Unfortunately, such pride in her work and achievements are glossed over in Ammonite with a mere reference to her being discussed within esteemed circles within the Geographical Society in London. Given her prominence in the field, it would have been preferable to discover more about the woman that Mary Anning was. This is one instance where Ammonite is lacking as a result of its insistence on depicting a fictionalised love affair despite there being ambiguity concerning the real life Mary Anning’s sexual orientation.

Mary Anning was renowned for discovering the Ichtyosaur which Ammonite briefly references, which had been displayed in the British Museum and is now on display at the Natural History Museum. This event in itself, highlighted the constraints in women’s positions as such discovery was not even exhibited with Mary’s name. Mary was therefore extremely pioneering for this time and resisted the urge to satisfy conventions. Perhaps this is the reason for which aspects of her life have been distorted in Ammonite or is this just to satisfy the male gaze?

Despite these seeming deficiencies, it must be said that Kate Winslet is at her career defining best in Ammonite and excels in the role of the restrained Mary Anning under Lee’s direction. Whilst portraying a character of few words in an unglamorous role, Kate’s emotions and gestures convey Mary’s commitment to her fossil discovery, including corprolites. Indeed, this is where the strength of Lee’s direction is on display. Ammonite is a quiet film which demands its audience’s patience with a meandering tale with unconvincing fictional elements and therefore Winslet’s performance assists to provide captivating dimensions.

Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in Ammonite
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in Ammonite

A fascinating character in her own right, there is certainly sufficient material about Mary to satisfy a full length feature film. Indeed, there has previously been a film made as a two part biopic on Mary’s life called Mary Anning and the Dinosaur Hunters. From the age of 11, Mary had located various fossils but as depicted within Ammonite her work was often credited to a male counterpart, effectively denying that recognition for Mary. It is therefore bewildering that Ammonite has chosen not to highlight such elements further.

Furthermore, Saiorse Ronan as Mary’s love interest Charlotte Murchison hardly seems stretched within the role. At first depicted as a poorly woman suffering from melancholia, as so many women seemed to be within history, their love affair on screen does not always seem convincing. Perhaps, this may be connected to a decision for their romance not to have developed gradually or it is likely to be another example of the difference in approach when such female intimate relationships are subjected to the male gaze.

There are marked differences between Mary and Charlotte regarding their class positions and such societal awkwardness is empathetically portrayed by Winslet. Ammonite however bluntly addresses such disparity with scenes displaying Charlotte’s wealth in London compared to the austerity of Mary’s surroundings in Lyme Regis. In such moments, Mary even describes feeling like a ‘fancy bird within a gilded cage’.

Instead of placing a focus on the beauty of a friendship developing into a romance, the emphasis is placed on the beautiful aesthetics, which is not as satisfying. The coast in Lyme Regis is imposing within the grey, limpid colour palette decorating the scenes within Ammonite and assist with that remote sense of observation of relics within painterly settings. The cinematography is certainly pleasing to the eye in such moments, with the depiction of the tender but powerful forces of nature composed within beautiful settings, but unfortunately conveys the detachment rather than emotion of such scenes.

Ammonite perfectly depicts that quietness of emotions from a female point of view and the level of tenderness between two women but it still feels rather detached. Ammonite’s central theme of a love affair surviving within a closed environment but bearing no reality to the real world, as it cannot thrive, means that there is an underlying sense of poignancy to Ammonite due to its unequal relationship. The beauty of the framing and composition combined with Winslet’s performance are the standout features within Ammonite given the slow paced nature of the film. Ammonite highlights Mary Anning without providing substance to her background as one of the forgotten women in history and Lee has therefore missed an opportunity by adopting a light-hearted filming approach to such a significant historical figure.

As part of the film’s budget was donated towards the town of Lyme Regis and there has been a campaign to erect a statue in Mary Anning’s honour, perhaps Ammonite’s true appeal will be its spotlight on this part of the Jurassic coast in all of its beauty.

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