The BFI London Film Festival was a very different experience this year, yet there was one consistent feature that was left unchanged by the pandemic: the array of brilliant films. The event was made perhaps even more accessible than usual due to the extraordinary circumstances, with screenings happening up and down the country instead of just in the capital. Yet, despite the unprecedented challenges, it was just as successful as it has been in years prior, largely thanks to its closing gala feature Ammonite (2020).
Set against the bleak backdrop of Victorian Lyme Regis, Francis Lee’s Ammonite is dull and grey in everything you see, from the jagged cliff faces to the stark, dirty home of our pioneering paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). Lee is no stranger to a dreary backdrop, as shown in his directorial debut God’s Own Country (2017), shot amidst the damp soils of the Yorkshire hillside. Lee has a habit, it appears, of making the setting of his films just as much a character as the protagonists themselves.
Anning spends her waking hours wandering alone along the crashing shoreline, clawing fossils out of the mud and sand with only her bare hands, the sound of howling waves her only accompaniment. She works night and day to excavate these impressive fossils, which are then swiftly credited to the male buyer. Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is more or less abandoned in the care of Anning after her snobbish husband Roderick (James McArdle) decides that he is fed up of her deep depression that leaves her white as a ghost and barely able to leave her bed and embarks on a tour of Europe. Both of their lives appear as spiritless and grey as each other’s, with both women being constantly overlooked and mistreated. It’s only when their hostilities eventually falter and they become warmer with each other that the film does so as a whole. The beautiful and vivid love scenes specifically, choreographed by Winslet and Ronan themselves, are so full of passion and colour that they serve as a welcome contrast to the bleakness of the rest of the film. It all starts to come alive with them. The characters of Mary and Charlotte bring out so much in each other emotionally and physically that it liberates them both and brings them back to life, a credit to the chemistry between the two lead actresses.
Ronan is brilliant, as she so often is, however this film is entirely Winslet’s. This is the best we have seen her in years. In fact, it may be a career-best performance altogether. She is absolutely unstoppable, shining so brightly as a woman who is so unreachable. Ammonite is deafening in its landscape but silent in its dialogue, as we are given the smallest amounts of conversation. Despite this, Winslet finds so much to say without saying anything at all. Her poised performance relies so heavily on body language, yet still manages to communicate all of this woman’s misery, reclusiveness, and inner suffering in a life that has been most prejudiced against her.
What worked really well as a fitting vehicle for the stars, however, could also serve as the biggest downfall for the film. The lack of dialogue at times meant it felt like we, the viewer, were missing out on pivotal pieces of information, as if we were on the outside of a big secret.
This gorgeous love story doesn’t have a happy ending tied up in a neat bow. It is actually left very open to interpretation, potentially to the exasperation of some viewers. Instead, Lee’s masterfully directed picture shows us the importance of human connections and relationships, even if they aren’t built to last.