1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
If you’re watching ‘Ammonite’ and you’re thinking you’ve seen this movie before then you would be correct. It was called ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ and it was one of the best movies of 2020, something that I doubt many will be saying in 2021 about ‘Ammonite’, a film that feels like a rip off despite being in production prior to the former film’s release. ‘Ammonite’ is a biopic of paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), yet it isn’t really about her work, with the movie’s focus curiously being on an imagined romantic relationship she has with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). By imagined I mean there is little to no evidence that this happened in real life, or indeed that Anning was sexually interested in woman.
Criticism by comparison is often an unfair technique but it is really, really hard not to view this unfavourably on every level to ‘Portrait’, a film which was one of my favourites of last year. Both are about a forbidden lesbian romance in the 1800s in a remote location, with even the crashing waves and stunning cliffs that form a backdrop comparable between the two movies. In the case of ‘Ammonite’ it has several issues that kept me at arms length from engaging with it, and the first of those is perhaps surprising. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are two of the finest actresses working today, yet I felt there was a lack of chemistry between them and that fatally hindered any investment in their love affair. Secondly, the story lacks a spark and is a bit boring, with director Francis Lee clearly deeming Anning’s work as a paleontologist too dull to focus on (and he’s probably right on this), hence the invention of the love affair between the two women.
‘Ammonite’ wouldn’t be the first biopic to take liberties with the facts and the subject it is focusing on, and Lee is within his rights to make a judgement on the spirit of the character and how that will work for his movie. However, given the lack of focus on Anning’s paleontology work (you know, the thing she is known for), it does raise a question on the ethics of using a real person for a racy lesbian drama, when a fully fictional story could have been just as effective. Indeed, Lee’s debut film ‘God’s Own Country’ is a perfect example of how effective that can be, and is a far superior film to ‘Ammonite’ which just never got going at all for me.
Directed By: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones, Alec Secăreanu, James McArdle and Claire Rushbrook
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