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Ammonite (film): John C Adams Reviews

Show name: Ammonite

Release date: 2020

Genre: Period drama

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

Written and directed by: Francis Lee

Studio: BFI/BBC/See Saw Films

Length: 117 minutes

Rating: 4/5

There isn’t much LGBT representation in classic period drama, nor much attention to the lives of working people either.

So, Ammonite comes as something of a breath of fresh air.

The fact that the fresh air comes blowing in from the sea at Lyme Regis helps to place Ammonite firmly within a tradition of English literature from the nineteenth century.

Jane Austen set much of Persuasion there and the Cobb at Lyme Regis is a central part of her story.

In the twentieth century, John Fowles used this association when he set his novel The French Lieutenant’s Woman there too.

Ammonite is different to either of these narratives, but it builds on these traditions.

It also features the role of Lyme Regis as a part of the scientific exploration of the south coast in Victorian times to excavate fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures such as ammonites.

The film is loosely biographical, although the romantic element appears to be speculative.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives with her mother in Lyme Regis, running a shop selling the fossils she excavates locally.

The work is hard and Mary is tough. Her mother lost eight of her ten children during their childhoods, and their continuing poverty demands further resilience from Mary.

An early scene where their sole protein source (two eggs from their only chicken) is undercooked illustrated this vividly. Mary’s mother (Gemma Jones) cannot face eating a barely cooked egg, but Mary steels herself and consumes hers anyway.

I last saw Gemma Jones and Kate Winslet together in Sense and Sensibility, where they also played mother and daughter. Ammonite was very different in tone and social position, but their reunion worked well.

Mary is visited by a gentleman amateur scientist, something the Victorian era produced in abundance, asking for training in excavating fossils.

He is accompanied by his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), still depressed from losing a baby.

While he soon leaves for a tour of Europe, Charlotte remains behind in Lyme for the medically prescribed treatment of sea air, bathing and gentle walks.

Mary is paid to take Charlotte on excursions to the beach to bring her out of herself. The connection between them deepens when Charlotte takes a chill while bathing, and Mary nurses her through the serious fever that follows.

This then develops into a lesbian relationship. The ground for this is foreshadowed by hints of a previous relationship between Mary and Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw).

The ease with which Charlotte enters their relationship suggests that this may not be her first rodeo either.

I was struck by the lack of dialogue. The three central women (Winslet, Jones and Ronan) were all able to communicate immense amounts of feeling and characterisation without speech.

Whole scenes often featured few if any words spoken, but the emotion came through very powerfully.

The clothing, homes and practical experience of Charlotte and Mary were vividly contrasted to bring out the differences in their social stations. It isn’t common for costume dramas of this period to bring in developed (let alone central) characters from working class backgrounds, so this was very welcome.

Ammonite felt a lot more inclusive than many period dramas via the voices of working people and members of the LGBT community. These voices were united in Mary, who was very often the point-of-view character.

In an historic world where few women lived openly in lesbian relationships, the search for a happy onscreen ending represents an ongoing challenge. Here, the open ending offers possible interpretations of the life that may lie ahead for Mary and Charlotte.

Thank you for reading my review.

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