Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan 'compelling' in Ammonite's 'beautifully crafted' period romance
Fossil hunter (Kate Winslet) sparks forbidden desire with a melancholic wife (Saoirse Ronan) in Ammonite. Damon Smith reviews...
AMMONITE (15, 118 mins) Romance/Drama. Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secareanu, Fiona Shaw. Director: Francis Lee.
Released: March 26 (available via Premium Video On Demand rental for 48 hours on all major platforms)
IN 2017, writer-director Francis Lee drew heavily on his upbringing on a family farm in West Yorkshire for his multi-award-winning debut feature, God's Own Country.
The emotionally raw love story between a closeted farmer's son and a Romanian immigrant worker drew favourable comparisons with Brokeback Mountain, likening characters' inner turmoil to the bitterly cold wind and rain that lashes the undulating earth.
Lee attempts a similar feat of cinematic alchemy, this time in the crashing waves along the Jurassic coast of 19th-century Devon, in Ammonite. Adopting a colour-bleached palette that reflects the characters' frozen emotional states, this beautifully crafted period romance thaws out nicely with compelling performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
They portray secret lovers in a Victorian era of groundbreaking scientific discovery, when a woman's class could permit her to kiss another in front of a servant without fear of retribution.
Winslet's stoic trailblazer, who barely registers emotion as she prowls the beaches in search of fossils, is a stark counterpoint to Ronan's effervescent woman of learning and privilege, who has been rendered numb by the recent loss of a child.
The actresses expertly plumb despair and longing in wordless sequences, captured in bold strokes by cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, who relishes the furious splendour of Mother Nature at work on the rugged landscapes of south-west England.
Pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) battles the elements to painstakingly excavate nearly complete skeletons and other fossilised treasures from the cliffside. As a woman, she is not credited properly for her discoveries by a patriarchal scientific community, which proudly displays her work in museum cabinets in London.
Instead, Mary ekes out a thankless living alongside her perspicacious mother Molly (Gemma Jones) by selling fossils and curios to tourists through the family business in Lyme Regis.
Fellow palaeontologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives in town with his young wife Charlotte (Ronan), who is in the grip of "mild melancholia". He entreats Mary to take care of Charlotte for "four weeks, perhaps five… no more than six" in the hope that the bracing sea air and walks along the coastline will improve his wife's disposition and re-ignite her maternal spirit.
"I want my bright, funny, clever wife back," he explains.
Mary is reluctant but she needs the money and a local doctor (Alec Secareanu) pricks her conscience when he suggests, "It is a woman's position to care for a fellow sister, is it not?"
Ammonite doesn't quite match the heady erotic charge of Lee's previous film but it's equally elegant and assured in the distillation of complex feelings. Winslet and Ronan delicately trace their character arcs, culminating in artfully staged scenes of nudity and carnal desire that the relentless barrage of sea spray can't possibly dampen.