Following on from the critical success of his groundbreaking debut God’s Own Country, writer and director Francis Lee revisits the theme of repressed homosexual romance with his semi-biographical drama Ammonite. Set on the blustery shores of Lyme Regis in the 1840s, the plot is loosely inspired by palaeontologist Mary Anning. On his European tour, a wealthy fossil enthusiast arrives in town to visit Mary (Kate Winslet) to discuss her geological findings. His young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is suffering from severe melancholia and he decides that the sea air will aid her recovery, so he carries on without her, leaving her in Mary’s care. Despite their stark financial and cultural differences, the pair strike up an endearing friendship, leading to a forbidden love that would impact upon their lives forever.
Lee takes a patient approach to storytelling as the narrative settles into the sombre rhythm of Mary’s stony-faced daily routines. Light on dialogue, we see the hardened protagonist battle the elements as she carefully carries out her work. As she takes workshy Charlotte under her wing, there’s a very subtle humour in witnessing how Mary’s ruggedness contrasts with Charlotte’s privileged daintiness. They appear to admire the qualities in one another that they themselves don’t possess and as the plot develops, Mary slowly softens to Charlotte’s vulnerability. There are inescapable similarities with Céline Sciamma’s masterful period piece Portrait of a Lady on Fire and though this may suffer slightly from this comparison, there’s an integral layer to Lee’s vision that’s unique to his work, as his repressed characters navigate the complexities of the British class system.
A less-is-more style is adopted by the script, therefore the sheer presence of the leads becomes vital in evoking the emotion on screen. The story itself is pretty simple, and so it is driven by the stolen glances, the quiet moments, and the simmering passion in the souls of Mary and Charlotte. With the titanic talents of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan at the forefront, the internal struggles of the unlikely lovers are deftly illustrated, and their subdued yet sublime performances enhance the suspense that Lee crafts as they grow closer throughout. Evolving against the weather-beaten seaside landscape, Ammonite lets Francis Lee hone his cinematic voice with a creative twist on a historical figure. A rough and ready depiction of adoration, agonising in its adversity, yet chiselled into something precious and beautiful.