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Fossil Duel

Agatha A. Nitecka/Neon

Ammonite (2020)

Kate Winslet has always been one of our wildest and most courageous actresses, with a bad tendency to choose parts that curtail her courage and wildness. Fortunately in “Ammonite” she comes roaring back at full power with a refreshing reminder of what a star she is, and what her star power can do. We even see her having a wee onscreen – she hasn’t done that since “Holy Smoke,” her reaction to the corset “Titanic” put her in. If that’s anything to go by, she is back!

The plot is whisper-thin: Mary Anning (Ms. Winslet) is a famed fossil hunter living and working with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) near the beach in Lyme Regis – where the actions of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” are obviously happening on the other side of town. They have a little shop but very little money, so when posh collector bro Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, taking one for gender equality with his gratuitous nude scene) barges in and asks to accompany Mary on her fossil collecting trips, Mary doesn’t need anything spelled out. But Roderick has bigger plans, which don’t include his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who at the start is dressed in mourning and knocked flat with a spot of melancholia. More cash ensures that Charlotte is foisted off onto Mary, and a spot of misguided sea bathing leaves Charlotte unconscious in Mary’s home. Mary – about whom you get the sense she could cope with literally anything – does the needful, which makes a great impression on the new town doctor (Alec Secareanu). And pretty soon this leads to quite a bit more.

The hype around the movie is about the sex – which is as no-holds-barred as you would expect from Ms. Winslet at peak form – but this is a movie really about time and absence and how a person has to carry on after loss. Writer-director Francis Lee ensures a measured pace, kept up the whole way through, allowing the viewer ample time to reflect on what the characters do not discuss. These topics include the pervasive cold, what it is like to lose a child, time’s slow march forward, and how hard a woman without male protection must work to stay alive. The opening shot is of a scrubwoman polishing a parquet floor until some men barge right over her (and her work) with one of Mary’s fossils, which they immediately reattribute to the man she sold it to. Similarly, Mary’s stoicism and constant shouldering of various burdens is something that Charlotte wants for herself. The movie – which doesn’t bother to spell out the obvious financial issues, either – could be used as a study of how class is depicted through the knitwear in Michael O’Connor’s costumes. Ms. Ronan makes Charlotte needy without being spoiled, and there’s a beautiful scene in the shop where she reveals some pretty valuable skills of her own; but she’s the second fiddle here, and she knows it, in character and in life. It’s a gorgeous and very smart performance.

But despite Charlotte’s wealth and beauty, the movie is firmly on Mary’s side. Her intelligence and capacity for hard work is shown in all its muddy glory, as how life has beaten her ability to fight for more out of her. In an odd way, Mary has exactly what she’s wanted. But the appearance of Charlotte is an unwelcome reminder that the world has so much more, and the question is what, if anything, Mary plans to do about it. Fiona Shaw, in a vital small part, provides a nagging reminder that even Mary’s courage has its limits, although their shared knowledge of mother Molly’s suffering is a pointed reminder of what those limits are made of. This movie, in its expectation that the viewer will understand what it is seeing, is almost too smart for the present moment, but luckily it does also give us plenty of what we want.

The only misstep is the scene in the sea; it just feels so unlikely that Mary would allow such a show of happiness with so little prompting. On the other hand, “Ammonite” is a constant reminder of time and its effects, how hard a person must work to find something worth cherishing, and how little value men place on the efforts of women to survive. The final sequence, which includes one hell of a shot of Mary disembarking from a boat onto a busy wharf on the Thames, makes the options clear. Charlotte is possibly the only person surprised that Mary might not appreciate it. What Ms. Winslet can do with a shift of her shoulder or a twist of her jaw makes her feelings abundantly clear. It is so wonderful to see Ms. Winslet back, she could do anything and we’d follow. “Ammonite” is the perfect vehicle for her to remind us all what’s she’s capable of.


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