Movie Review ~ Ammonite

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Acclaimed paleontologist Mary Anning works alone selling common fossils to tourists to support her ailing mother, but a chance job offer changes her life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, Fiona Shaw

Director: Francis Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In the realm of the blockbuster comic book franchise films, it was front page news when Batman did battle with Superman and the buzz was booming when top acting star Bradley Cooper joined forces with mega-watt recording artist Lady Gaga for their remake of A Star is Born.  Yet when two of the most respected actresses working today joined forces on a film for the first time it barely created a ripple effect in the film industry at the outset.  I mean, this should have been some kind of cause for cheers.  Look through most lists of best actresses (or just view the Oscar nominees from the last decade) and you’ll see the names Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan pop up often and there’s a reason for that.  Both are highly charged performers that invite audiences into the worlds they create, crafting blood and bone people who feel as if they could leap off the screen.

By all accounts, the joining of these two talents on Ammonite should have been big news and for a while, it was.  Here was a period drama featuring Winslet as real-life English fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning living in the chilly coastal Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and Ronan as Charlotte, a young wife who accompanies her amateur fossil-hunter husband to meet Mary and winds up staying behind.  A fictionalized account of their friendship and eventual romance by writer/director Francis Lee, Ammonite should have been a slam dunk of a film for all involved.  However, it has the misfortune of coming on the heels of two other movies, one directed by Lee himself, that have many of the same themes, and both play them with a richer sound.

There’s not much more to Ammonite than what I just laid out for you and what is etched out briefly in the synopsis…so you’re in for 117 minutes of rocks and frocks with little in the way of joy.  I’d have expected more from everyone, especially considering this is a completely fabricated work that takes the life of a neglected woman from history and basically gives her the opportunity to be seen for the first time by a larger audience outside of the scientific community.  Though Dickens supposedly wrote about her and rumor has it her dedication to excavating along the ocean line inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”, Mary Anning is mostly an unknown to the layperson.  So why would Lee take us into her small piece of the world in Dorset and make it so gloomy gus?

Perhaps it was a desire from Ronan to slough off some of the porcelain veneer she’s achieved these last years as the catch-all for every kind of inspired ingenue through the ages. Between receiving Best Actress Oscar nominations for the headstrong Jo in Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, as an Irish immigrant bravely making a go of it on her own in mid-century NYC in Brooklyn, or as a determined and misunderstood high school senior in Lady Bird, she hasn’t had much of a chance to find the cracks and crevices in female characters that simply don’t have the answers to function on their own. In that way, Ammonite succeeds in providing an outlet for Ronan to stretch and expose herself in spirt and, in several graphic sex scenes, body.

On the other hand, Winslet struggles with going through the motions of another troubled woman held back by or judged more harshly on the norms of society.  Similar to Iris, Jude, Little Children, and her Oscar-winning role in The Reader, Winslet knows how to work these sharp angles of women on the fringe that don’t care what people think but secretly are pained by their stares.  We know she’s a loner from the jump and that Ronan will find a way to break down her walls, but in Lee’s telling we never quite see why, aside from the attention being paid to her from the young beauty.  While Winslet and Ronan have an easy rapport, I never quite bought into their physical attraction to each other, though they do their best to help us get to some kind of acceptance by the film’s late in the game eye-opener of a bedroom encounter.  Let’s just say this…if you’re watching Ammonite with someone else make sure you’re comfortable enough with them to withstand some extreme awkwardness.  One of the best scenes in the film isn’t even between the two stars, it’s with Winslet and Fiona Shaw (Kindred) who makes a brief cameo in a role that is on one hand something new and different for Shaw to be seen in while at the same time playing in to her ability to give every character a nice little secret.

In 2017, Lee wrote and directed God’s Own Country, a superior film following the unlikely relationship that forms between two men and the contrast between that movie and Ammonite can’t be written off.  Both feature someone living a hard-scrabble life without much in the way of availability to express their true feelings of physical love and a chance encounter with a passing stranger that affords some kind of passion to enter their hemisphere.  Though the consequences in each film are different, knowing Lee is behind both suggests the filmmaker has more than a passing interest in telling stories of romance that blooms off the beaten path.  Ammonite also parallels 2019’s rightfully-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire – you can almost draw arrows between both plots/characters that point to one another.  The problem with this is that for both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and God’s Own Country, Ammonite is always seen as the lesser of the two so you find yourself watching a new movie and wishing it were as good as an older one.

It’s sad that this pairing has yielded such bland fruit as Ammonite.  I like both actresses and I quite like Gemma Jones (Rocketman) appearing here as Winslet’s long-suffering mother who has a porcelain figurine for each of the eight children she’s lost over the years.  Watching her clean the tiny curios daily as her only bit of happiness is devastating, the rare bit of true unique emotion Lee has for audiences exploring this dramatized tale he’s imagined.  I’d almost rather have seen a fuller version of Anning’s life that detailed how she came to find a passion for what she did, how she was originally rejected by members of the scientific community, and how her work provided the basis for a number of advancements over time.  There’s romance in science as well.

Movie Review ~ Mary Queen of Scots


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth I, Queen of England, finds her condemned to years of imprisonment before facing execution.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Margot Robbie, Jack Lowden, Joe Alwyn, Gemma Chan, Martin Compston, Ismael Cordova, Brendan Coyle, Ian Hart, Adrian Lester, James McArdle, David Tennant, Guy Pearce

Director: Josie Rourke

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: ‘Tis the season to be jolly…and to be faced with an onslaught of Oscar bait historical dramas that can arrive with hype but fade without much fanfare.  I mean, we’ve already seen what happened to Keira Knightley’s Collette earlier this fall.  Oh, you missed it in theaters?  So did I…and everyone else.  I sure hope Mary, Queen of Scots isn’t another 2018 victim of this reluctance by audiences in sitting for two hours for a period piece.  For all its historical fudging of the facts and obvious attempts to link the ill treatment of two powerful women in the past to our present state of living in a #MeToo and #TimesUp environment, this is a fantastically entertaining film that had this notorious watch-checker glued to the screen with nary a glance toward his timepiece.

I admit it’s been more than a hot minute since I’ve had a history lesson on the legacy of the English monarchy so I’m going on the good faith of the opening text that in 1561 young Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) returned to her Scottish homeland.  Widowed by her husband, the Dauphin of France, she had a strong claim to the throne of England, then held by her first cousin Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya) but she wasn’t just able to waltz in and toss the crown on her head.  The Catholic Stuart posed a threat to the Protestant Elizabeth, not just in the religious differences of their subjects and not the least of which was that whoever produced a child first would be able to call the throne hers.

Over the next twenty six years the two women would wage a complex game of chess in which both moved players to the forefront for personal and political gain, only to be outwitted or strong-armed aside by the various men that conspired against the both of them.  “Men can be so cruel” Elizabeth is heard saying and in Beau Willimon’s script it’s clear that the men are the enemy (there’s not a single truly honorable bloke in the bunch) and women were kept under thumb despite their noble attempts to bring peace and order to their lands in the ways they, as monarchs, deemed correct.

Willimon’s experience as creator of the US adaptation of House of Cards was a good training ground for his work here.  The intricate political dealings between the two queens and their assembled privy councils make for some crackling good scenes of wit and retort and the heated arguments, desperate protestations, and whispered confidences come off well in the hands of our stars and the supporting players.  Even taking liberties with some historical points of interest and outright dreaming up a meeting with Mary and Elizabeth doesn’t feel as if a great historical injustice is being done.

First-time director Joise Rourke gives it her all in Mary, Queen of Scots, nicely blending costume drama (oh, those wonderful costumes by Alexandra Byrne, Thor!) and episodic schemes against Mary by the ones she holds closest. Originally courted by Lord Robert Dudley (Joe Alwyn, The Favourite) as a favor to Elizabeth in the hopes she can control her cousin, Mary eventually weds Henry Darnley (Jack Lowden, Dunkrik) who has secrets of his own that come to light in one of several twists I was surprised to see. For those averse to staid costume drama, there are battle scenes with Mary leading a charge against an army set to overthrow her and double-crosses aplenty.

Ronan proves again she’s a force to be reckoned with, much like the doomed queen she is portraying. Headstrong (pun intended) but not without compassion, Ronan gives Mary a modern sensibility in a time and place where women may have had a regal title but rarely had the upper hand. Robbie, too, has strong moments in a role that could easily have delved into camp considering her prosthetic nose and the heavy clown make-up Elizabeth wore to cover-up the lasting scars of her pox ailment.

Filling out the cast are a stable full of actors playing Mary’s devoted ladies in waiting as well as Guy Pearce (Prometheus) as Elizabeth’s advisor and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) as her confidante. The movie unquestionably belongs to our leading ladies and though the two actresses spend the majority of the film talking about one another, when they finally do meet up (in a scene that supposedly never really happened) Rourke gives the actresses room to breathe and resists the urge to lean into the catty nature Willimon’s script veers toward. The way cinematographer John Mathieson (Logan) moves his camera to create tension before the ladies first see each other had me on the edge of my seat.

History buffs may well reject this movie outright for its strident approach to the lives of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth but if you’re talking pure entertainment value then Mary, Queen of Scots has its head and heart in the right place.