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Film Review: Ammonite

20 October 20 words: Manvir Basi

Manvir Basi brings our London Film Festival coverage to a close with a review of romantic period drama Ammonite...

Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones
Running time: 120 minutes

The London Film Festival has brought down the curtain on another successful line-up and in a year of cancellations and reschedules, what a joy it was to have it. In a first for the Festival, films were screened online on BFI Player and across selected cinemas around the UK, including Broadway Cinema. (On a side note, a huge thanks to all the staff at Broadway Cinema for showing the films and for continuing to be open during this difficult time for cinemas.)

This year, Ammonite, Francis Lee’s eagerly anticipated film starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, closed the festival. In an era of streaming, here is a film that demands to be seen on the big screen and at the same time, positions itself as a serious Awards candidate.

Ammonite tells the story of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a real-life British Palaeontologist who collects common fossils to sell to tourists. An encounter with a visitor and supporter of her work, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) leads Mary to care for his nervous and ill wife, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). 

In a world of suppressed emotions and tight corsets, passion begins to flicker under the surface between Mary and Charlotte among the beaches and fossils of Lyme Regis. It must be noted that the film is not a biopic or true story but is inspired by the life of Mary Anning.

Each frame is crafted with incredible care and is a joy to behold

Under Francis Lee’s direction, so much is conveyed by so little. Quick glances and a few words tell us a whole story. Stéphane Fontaine’s luminous cinematography treats us to wonderfully framed close-ups of Ronan and Winslet, with one scene of Winslet at a music recital likely to get many Awards voters excited.

Each frame is crafted with incredible care and is a joy to behold. In fact, there is a touch of Yasujirō Ozu, as we are treated in between scenes to exquisite “pillow shots” of animals, fossils and elaborate needlework - shots that are not indulgent but anchor us firmly in the 19th century world of Lyme Regis. In a testament to Lee, there are numerous moments when this film could have easily strayed into melodrama or been “too on the nose” but he skilfully avoids such a trap

Whilst trying to predict which film will be in Awards contention is rather like trying to predict what’ll happen next year, Ammonite is a film that deserves to be in the conversation, notably for Winslet’s performance and Lee’s direction. With God’s Own Country, Lee has already established himself as a director to watch - but after Ammonite, he has once again set the bar high and in doing so, cemented himself as a leading figure in British cinema.

Did you know? Director Francis Lee made the decision to shoot the film's scenes chronologically, which he felt would increase the actors’ immersion in the narrative as the story developed.

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