When a movie is referred to as an “artistic achievement” it can sometimes be a backhanded compliment.
It can be a polite way of saying that the movie is beautiful to behold despite being yawn-inducing or flat-out boring.
Merchant-Ivory movies are probably good examples. Embraced by highbrow critics and Academy Awards members, and, largely ignored by everyone else.
So, I’m a little reluctant to refer to Ammonite (2020) as a stunning artistic achievement, though, in my estimation, it truly is.
Historically, it’s a mixed bag, but let’s start with the praise-worthy aspects.
I’m speaking of the two highly-acclaimed, immensely-talented co-stars, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan who shine in this evocative period piece about Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, two real-life characters who lived in the 19th century in England.
Mary Anning was a pioneering paleontologist who began making significant scientific discoveries while still in her early teens, living her small seaside town of Lyme Regis, Dorset.
She earned a meager living for her and her mother working as a commercial fossil hunter, using skills she had learned from her late father. Her life was one of poverty and anonymity.
That is, until Roderick Murchison, a wealthy young man, arrives one day asking to be Mary’s apprentice.
He is accompanied by his young, frail wife, Charlotte, who is suffering from deep melancholia after having recently lost her baby.
When the husband is called away for a month, he asks Mary to take Charlotte under her care in the hopes that she can cure Charlotte’s depression.
And so, the story begins.
The women slowly form a friendship and bond. And the bond progresses from strong emotional support to intense physical attraction, unleashed onscreen with shockingly unbridled, passion and lust.
While Ammonite might seem like a vehicle designed to allow two very serious actresses to redefine themselves and push the envelope of their already remarkable careers, it is instead, a genuinely serious and sensitive exploration of two women romantically finding each other in a time and place when their desire is forbidden.
It's the time and place and location that are at the center of Ammonite, a movie abounding in all forms of sensual experience.
It is a symphony of sights, sounds and touch that even suggests implied smells and tastes.
It is a movie that embraces nature and life itself, much like the work of Terrence Mallick in movies like The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005) or The Tree of Life (2011).
Like Mallick, writer/director Francis Lee turns his camera to the details that create this mosaic of a movie.
Everything is cast in natural light. The movie is filled with the natural sounds of the seashore and crunching of the pebbles as the characters walk on the stony, wet beach.
We can practically feel the cold, wet, slimy gray mud as the women dig with their hands to unearth long-buried fossil finds.
The camera occasionally stops to fix its gaze on sea creatures and insects, celebrating life in every form and the timelessness of life, reflected in million-year-old fossils long extinct.
There is a rich beauty in Ammonite, not usually found in mainstream cinema.
It’s the stuff of what used to be called art houses, places where one could enjoy the movies of foreign directors who often brought a deeper sensibility and maturity to their work.
Often, these directors broke ground and shattered taboos with their depiction of nudity and sexuality. As mentioned, Ammonite does that too.
What’s interesting is that this movie, based on real historical characters, takes so much liberty with the telling of their story.
While their general backstories seem accurate (both are real people who actually met briefly), their romance is completely undocumented and fictionalized, a story element added by Francis Lee.
It would seem to be a sign of the times recently, with an increasing number of directors turning their attention to the LGBTQ movement, crafting stories that address these issues.
Last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire(2019) is a great example, with a same-sex, forbidden love affair storyline very similar to the one in Ammonite.
Here, as compelling as the relationship is and as powerfully and tastefully as it was shot and edited, it feels a little contrived upon doing a little historical research and discovering that it never happened.
I won’t sit in judgement.
I’m simply suggesting that a movie about Mary Anning and her incredible life might have been interesting enough without the added on, love story element.
Writers and directors are certainly entitled to a certain degree of artistic license, and that has to be particularly tempting when their subject is someone both famous (in the scientific community) and, at the same time, famously obscure.
It affords you the opportunity to shape the story just about any way you like. And sprinkle in some steamy scenes designed to sell tickets.
Faithful historical accuracy aside, Ammonite is still a movie very much worth seeing. And experiencing.
Ammonite is in theaters and On Demand.
Photos Courtesy Neon Pictures.