The Movie Waffler BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - AMMONITE | The Movie Waffler

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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - AMMONITE

ammonite review
Mary, a paleontologist, works alone selling common fossils to tourists. A chance job offer changes Mary's life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Francis Lee

Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones

ammonite poster


Yorkshire-based filmmaker Francis Lee broke through the industry with God's Own Country, the critically acclaimed romantic drama in which a disillusioned farmer finds solace in the arrival of a Romanian migrant worker who changes his life. It was notable for starring no big names (Josh O’Connor’s star has since grown exponentially), not based on an existing IP, and made without pre-existing industry connections - the filmmaker simply had a solid story to tell and a team who believed in his vision.

It was very successful, receiving good box office results and many awards, including three at the independent film-oriented BIFA. With Ammonite, Lee can expand his audience further with two well-known talents leading the film. But what's more important is if he can expand his artistic signature. The answer to that is… not quite.

ammonite review

Lee’s new gay romantic drama best functions as an elemental cinematic experience. The lead actresses are wonderfully modest, Jackie cinematographer St├ęphane Fontaine imbues the film with a lot of truth through a naturalistic style, and the classic story of two secret lovers follows a safe path, including a predictable finale, but not without a resonant social subtext. But Ammonite also runs on an exceedingly cool temperature, doesn’t satisfyingly pay tribute to the biographed women, and doesn’t suggest Lee is broadening his thematic horizons.


The narrative here is a fictionalised account of the acclaimed 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, who can do so much with just a single glance) and a young middle-class woman, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, equally effective), whom she falls in love with during their time together on the Southern English coastline. Mary’s reason for dwelling in the secluded, geologically rich town of Lyme Regis is her job whereas Charlotte is brought here by her husband Roderick (James McArdle), also a geologist and a fan of Mary’s work. Evidently fatigued by a loveless marriage, Roderick offers Mary some cash to kindly look after Charlotte and let her accompany her on her expeditions as he moves elsewhere for their temporary stay.

ammonite review

With no love for dialogue and commanding his performers to deliver appropriately understated performances, Lee sparks chemistry between his characters through lingering close-ups, from the sight of Mary staring at Charlotte’s bare feet to the mellow moments of Mary accompanying a sick Charlotte overnight and sleeping beside her. The chemistry between Ronan and Winslet isn’t obvious, but there are sex scenes that are crafted so painstakingly that they could easily be the work - or at least influence - of famed intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien. While the relationship unfolds in a way that’s occasionally too slow and too subdued, it’s generally told fairly well. But there’s a neglect for who the two women really were as individuals and what they achieved.


I didn’t learn anything about Anning’s achievements and the compulsory end-of-biopic fact card is curiously missing, so I’ve no idea what any of the characters went on to do. I would suspect it’s because there’s no actual account of the heroine’s sexuality. So why take a woman who made great contributions to society and repurpose her cinematic narrative as a made-up love story? I wish I knew, because Lee isn’t exploring any ideas about intimacy and loneliness that he didn’t already delve into so well in his previous film.

ammonite review

There are some bigger discussions that are created if not stuck by, such as the context of Anning’s recognition: if she was really given her credit in this middle class sphere and how it may have contributed to her closed off identity. There’s also a great scene in which she stares at Charlotte having fun at the front row of a bougie exhibition, and realises the gulf in social class between the two of them.

Lee is a breathtakingly subtle craftsman, and I’ll have to watch Ammonite a second time to pick up all the nuances. Whether I want to re-experience the snail-paced, chilly proceedings again is something to think about another day but, for now, I look forward to reading the perspectives of gay women writers who will find more - or possibly less - subtext to chew on.

Ammonite played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

2020 movie reviews