London Film Festival 2020
Director Francis Lee is not one for big, grand statements of love. In his first feature, God’s Own Country, he explored themes of immigration through a tender love story with exceptional results and takes a similar approach to the story of Mary Anning, a 19th Century British fossil collector and paleontologist. Whilst not an immediately obvious choice for a romantic protagonist, it proves to be another triumph for the director.
Not much is known about Anning’s love life, but it is noted that she had many female friendships. Although technically a fictionalized take on her life, it is entirely plausible she was a lesbian, a narrative that Lee takes on wholeheartedly. This version of events posits Anning (Kate Winslet) as a somewhat closed-off woman, hardened by living with a mother who cannot move past her own grief, and her failed previous relationship. Approached by a wealthy man from London to essentially babysit his wife, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who is going through a period of depression herself. As the two spend more time together, feelings develop, leading to a freedom for both of the women trapped in a man’s world.
Most films focusing on a lesbian relationship go one of two ways: the couple in question are either punished for their sexuality or exploited through the eye of a straight male director; Lee, part of the LGBT+ community himself, opts for neither, instead simply developing the characters on their own terms. There is no dramatic revelation, no story contrivances in order to ensure a grand finale, simply a muted unfolding of a romance between two people.
As with God’s Own Country, which ran with matters of the immigrant experience, Ammonite also explores a subject relevant to its characters, that of the erasure of women from history, and specifically their achievements in what is perceived as a man’s sector. A touching moment sees Mary remove a fossil Charlotte has displayed in a cabinet, noticing that the former’s husband’s name as discoverer has been taped over and replaced, quite rightly, with Anning’s own. The thread of women supporting each other in a sexist world is softly and deftly touched upon, as are the difficulties these women have faced in the past; the grief each woman has experienced is only hinted at, and never explicitly delved into, refusing to pander to its audience.
It would be easy to dismiss this as another Oscar-bait release, with such high-caliber actors and historical context, but its performances are paired back and reserved – there is no artifice in either Winslet’s nor Ronan’s achievements, and both are deserving of a potential Oscar nomination, particularly Winslet, whose subtlety renders her almost unrecognizable.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine (whose previous works include Jackie and A Prophet), expertly acted and both delicately written and directed, Francis Lee cements himself as one of the best British directors working today, and a much-needed tonic for some of the more melodramatic outings cinema has to offer.
- Roni Cooper
Shirley plays as part of the London Film Festival, running from 7 -18 October. Learn more via their website.