After delivering one of the most astounding debuts of the decade with his acclaimed 2017 film 'God's Own Country', writer and director Francis Lee became, for many audiences, a filmmaker to fiercely pay attention to. It was clear from 'God's Own Country' that this was an artist with a unique and powerful voice, and whatever he made next would hopefully strengthen our understanding of that voice. With his second film 'Ammonite', Francis Lee confirms himself as a storyteller intensely fascinated by the nature of love and human connection, but in all its frailties, inconsistencies and furies. Rather than delivering a film akin to his debut, he has instead released its considered and complex companion.
Set in the British seaside town of Lyme Regis in the 1840s, 'Ammonite' is loosely based on British palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, 'Titanic', 'Steve Jobs'), a brilliant but lonely woman living with her ailing mother Molly (Gemma Jones, 'Rocketman', 'God's Own Country') and exploring the beaches for fossils. She is visited by budding palaeontologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, 'Mary Queen of Scots'), who asks if he may leave his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, 'Lady Bird', 'Little Women') with her as she recovers from melancholia. Mary begrudgingly agrees, but the two women form a close bond that moves from the familial to the romantic, and together find a path back into the world they had been trying to hide from.
The metaphor of the careful art of fossil hunting and the rediscovery of love and desire is a very neat one, but Lee does not for a second take it for granted. This is a careful, meticulous film, built on a deep understanding of how tricky and fraught such an emotional excavation can be. If Johnny in 'God's Own Country' was a character discovering love, Mary is a character rediscovering it, having pushed it aside from her life after a failed relationship with the town apothecary Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw, 'Killing Eve'). She has chosen a life of isolation, her most intense emotional relationship being with the ancient creatures she summons from the rocks. Her world is defined by routine, some of which she revels in (such as her beachcombing or her studies) and others performed with rote disconnect (such as caring for Molly, a woman whose soul has been broken by the loss of many children). Lee is fascinated with the procedures of life and how they can inform the inner life of a character, and in 'Ammonite', the slow, methodical setup in the first act with the mechanisms of Mary's life serve the emotional satisfaction of the third. He doesn't rush the relationship between Mary and Charlotte, moving each grain of rock meticulously so as not to damage the fragile soul inside, but with each grain moved, the purity of that connection becomes clear. With the beauty of Lee's direction and Winslet's extraordinary performance, every small crack that appears in Mary's protective armour is filled with light and hope, but light tinged with the sadness of how long it has been suppressed.
This speaks to Lee's approach in telling queer stories - one driven by intelligence as much as emotion. 'Ammonite' is a more subdued film than 'God's Own Country' in many ways, but what Lee is exploring here is a queer life lived, and the way in which anyone that falls outside of the heteronormative paradigm is, in a sense, fossilising themselves in order to protect themselves. The layer of rock must be hard, but what lies within has a beauty and delicacy that speaks to the living soul inside. To love is to make one's self vulnerable to attack, and the journey for Mary is to find her vulnerability, unlocked by Charlotte's desperate need to express her own. Unlike the lovers in 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', Mary and Charlotte feel ill-matched, and their first steps towards love are awkward and unsure, but they find salvation in how different one is from the other. Mary offers Charlotte a picture of strength and resilience, while Charlotte opens Mary's world to the possibilities of life, not just in love but in living. This is an integral part of a queer life: a stepping out of the darkness after long away from the light. In the case of Mary, the length of that time away makes stepping out all the more treacherous and sublime.
Lee also goes to great length to make the world of 'Ammonite' feel lived and authentic. This was one of the most incredible aspects of 'God's Own Country', and in 'Ammonite', Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine ('Jackie') likewise favour the textures and sensorial details of Lyme Regis that speak to the tempestuous storm in these women's souls. There's a strong contrast to the white-walled confinement of Mary's home, barely able to contain the three women and the blossoming romance, and the wide and wild fury of the coast. Fontaine frames the two environments carefully, and in particular where the women sit within it. On the coast, there is a freedom to their movement within the frame, a greater space to stretch and to be, while the camera holds close on them indoors, almost suffocatingly so. The cinematography is gorgeous, but this feels incidental to its truthfulness, which is far more important.
To love is to make one's self vulnerable to attack, and the journey for Mary is to find her vulnerability, unlocked by Charlotte's desperate need to express her own.
Once again, Lee demonstrates what a remarkable talent he has with eliciting honest, brave and emotional performances from his cast, with a cinematic space that feels potent with possibility. "Brave" is such a strange word we use to describe acting, often mistaken for being emotional or daring, but Lee's work here is another example of what true bravery in performance is; an ability to access vulnerability. Both Winslet and Ronan are given the space to do so, and while Ronan is terrific as Charlotte, it is Winslet who delivers the more affecting and careful performance. Her work as Mary sits in a precipice, where we can see her haunted by the danger in front of her while desperate to submit to it and release herself from this prison of safety. Winslet has long been one of the greatest actors working today, but there's something particularly potent in her collaboration with Lee, and the generosity that clearly exists between her and Ronan. The trio is completed with a devastating Gemma Jones as Molly, and thank goodness for Francis Lee, who has tapped into a part of Gemma Jones' extraordinary talent that few have for many years.
Much like its protagonist, 'Ammonite' is a film that initially keeps you at a distance - but this is a deliberate decision, one that makes the embrace of the final act all the more powerful. This isn't a sweeping story of passionate love, but a journey back to love, and a journey with an unexpected destination. Perhaps what Mary is looking for - the true fossil she is trying to uncover within herself - is not the connection of another person but the connection with herself, a forgotten part of herself long-buried or taken away. Charlotte is the path to that salvation, and in turn, is led out of the darkness herself, returned to a kind of love and passion thought lost, and giddy at the finding of it. 'Ammonite' is such a beautiful, soulful and intelligent film, made with honesty, integrity and an unexpected sense of humour that breaks through the rock encasing it. It confirms that our faith in Francis Lee is well-founded, and offers yet another classic queer drama that pushes against the expectations of the kinds of lives these films can explore.