BFI London Film Festival Review – Ammonite (2020)

Set amongst the chilly coastal landscapes of Lyme Regis, West Dorset, Ammonite is a gracefully-directed period piece of forbidden love. Written and directed by Francis Lee, Ammonite takes place circa. 1840, starring Kate Winslet as Mary—a lonely palaeontologist whose gender prevents her from scientific recognition. When the young, beautiful and melancholic Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) glides into her life, Mary’s routine existence is given meaning—even if it’s a taboo one.

Lee’s lesbian-romance drama is both passionate and cold; austere and tender. Where Mary is blunt, steadfast and hardened to the elements, Charlotte is feminine and soft-spoken. But opposites attract, so they say, and it’s this oddly disjointed chemistry that proves so apt for the time; they aren’t supposed to be together, yet somehow they can’t stay away. It isn’t sparks so much as a slow burn—hot and constantly under the surface.

Winslet and Ronan deliver equally exquisite performances, relying mostly on expressions and glances from such a sparse script. Lee’s lack of exposition makes viewers work to find meaning, but when it’s found, it’s that much deeper for not spoon-feeding us information. The dialogue isn’t the only thing that’s frugal—the set design, music and editing is kept to a minimum. Not only does this echo the time, but enhances our focus on the two protagonists. Time is taken to appreciate the smaller things in life: the ocean, ancient fossils, soft piano music.

Lee avoids romanticising an era where things were, in reality, difficult and unrewarding. Class distinctions make our couple suffer in different ways: Mary has to graft for a living, surviving off meagre meals and no heating in her frosty, ocean-side cottage. Gorgeous and wealthy as Charlotte is, she is still chained to patriarchy. Grieving a lost child without any distractions, her only purpose in life is to look pretty for her husband and be available on command.

An ode to all—but especially lesbian—women during the 19th century, Ammonite is an intensely feminist piece of LGBTQ+ cinema. Centring around a female scientist who rejects men’s advances (yet fixes her hair in the presence of women), Lee directs an honest, deeply moving depiction of alternative love. Lee relies heavily on visual motifs to communicate with his audience—after living with Mary, Charlotte goes from dressing in all black to white and blue. This reverberates later on when Mary’s ex-lover (Fiona Shaw) arrives, dressed in the same pastel hues and the same blond locks as Charlotte. Mary clearly has a type, despite her efforts to deny herself, and it’s these little things that are so cleverly and quietly woven into the narrative.

Intricately designed but with occasional bursts of fierce energy, Ammonite closed the 64th BFI London Film Festival 2020 with a flourish. Lee’s minimalistic period piece may not be entirely accurate to the time—as criticized by The Guardian—but provides a nonetheless beautiful love story, transcending social boundaries.