TIFF 2020: Francis Lee's Lovely Seaside Romance Film 'Ammonite'
by Alex Billington
September 24, 2020
"I don’t want to go back to the life I had before you…" Love is a powerful force. And love can be a beautiful thing, especially when it connects two people who don't have any interest in love. But true love is also rare, and honestly hard to find. As hard to find as a complete, unbroken fossil hidden inside a rock, just waiting patiently for millions of years to be discovered. That is the primary metaphor in this film, and it's a lovely metaphor. Ammonite is the second feature from British filmmaker Francis Lee, following his breakout debut God's Own Country a few years ago. It was selected for the Cannes Film Festival this year, but instead is premiering at the Toronto & London Film Festivals this fall (following Cannes' cancellation). I was lucky to catch the film, as Lee only wants to show it in a cinema. Rightfully so - it's worth to wait to see it properly.
The title, Ammonite, is a reference to a sea creature known as an "ammonite" that lived in a spiral shell and lived millions of years ago. The story follows a grumpy woman named Mary, played by Kate Winslet, who works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. She hunts for fossils spending most of her day by the water searching through rocks, returning to her home with her aging mother in the evening. One day she meets a young lass named Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan, who was brought to this town by her husband - an avid fossil collector and connoisseur. While he decides to head back, he leaves Charlotte there to recover from "melancholia". Soon the two ladies begin to connect, and slowly but surely the spark between them turns into a roaring fire that warms their souls and melts the icy crust off of their hearts. Most of the film is very cold, on purpose, and its quaint warmth comes entirely from their romance.
Unlike another (really awful) lesbian love story film playing on the festival circuit this fall, this one doesn't use words alone (or pain) to tell us what people feel. Francis Lee let's us see their connection in their eyes, in their physicality, in their movements and glances and caresses. We can sense their sexual tension in every meticulous frame. I almost always enjoy watching films that recognize cinema as a visual medium, not just relying purely on text, but adding depth and nuance in what we get to see (or not) on screen. It's also just so nice to watch a film that doesn't rely on the frustrating tropes that so many period piece LGBTQ stories often do these days. Instead of another film about suffering, this is a film about how mesmerizing it can be to watch two grumpy people find love. And that's more rich and inspiring than the same story of forbidden love and someone will find out and punish them because oh so bad. Instead, this is just a story of pure love.
And honestly - we need more stories of pure love. We don't need more stories of suffering and punishment and forbidden romance. Because there's nothing forbidden about it! Of course. My main complaint is about the sound design - a few scenes at the ocean featured crashing waves in the background that drowned out all of the dialogue, and even though it might be accurate (waves can be loud), it bothered me more than any other issue with this story. It's also a bit of a frigid film, by design, which kept me from falling head-over-heels for it. But the warmth exuding from their love makes up for it, which is what Lee excels at. Ammonite is a really lovely, beautiful film that shows how much one brightens up (literally) when they finally establish a connection with someone else. Cracking open that hard shell, discovering something extraordinary inside.
Alex's TIFF 2020 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing