Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Dec 19, 2020 8:28 pm 
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A short love affair

Lee's strong first feature was a gay romance set in Yorkshire farm country where he grew up gay and still lives. It was a little like Brokeback Mountain without the tragedy because there was no prejudice and it ended okay; he says it's like that up there lately. This time he has gone further afield but sticking to his homo focus, inventing a brief lesbian affair for two real-life nineteenth-century women, the paleontologist Mary Anning and geologist Charlotte Murchison (though here, only Murchison's husband is a geologist; Charlotte is demoted to the status of rich, depressed wife). It happens by the sea, bringing inevitably to mind the most prominent recent lesbian period film drama, Céline Sciamma's Cannes two-prize winner, Portrait de la jeune fille en feu ("Portrait of a Young Lady on Fire").

Anning was not known to have been lesbian. She could have been; she never married. Lee defends his invention, saying that as a "working class, queer film maker" he reserves the right to "explore themes" of "class, gender sexuality" and treat his "truthful characters" with "utter respect." He says we've too often seen "queer history be routinely 'straightened'" so, perhaps it's time to get more routinely bent. Indeed it seems the vote may be in favor of any invention surrounding Mary Anning that draws attention to her because she was someone important in her field whose work went unsung and unrewarded at the time due to her gender, poor education and low class status. A distant relative has said she doesn't think Mary was gay but if she was she should be shown as such and played by a gay actress: touchée.

These issues can't change the fact that this is an unwinning tale and, for many viewers, including myself, lacks emotional heft, even if, of course, having its principals played by actresses of the magnitude of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan adds interest. (Peter Bradshaw was so overpowered by them when he saw the film in Toronto he gave it four out of five stars.)

Mary Anning (Winslet) lives in a tiny house near the sea with her mother, Molly (Fiona Shaw), who is not well, though no one seems to notice till she keels over. When a wealthy enthusiast from London, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes to pay homage to her work (so it was not utterly unsung, after all) and pay her to let him go out with her hunting specimens along the shore, she does so with a very ill will, but she and Molly need the money. Their only regular income seems to come from the sale of tiny tourist fossils and her mother's small porcelain figurines (her "babies").

The reward comes later. There's someone else along, Murchison's wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). But he can barely get her out of bed. She is suffering from a "mild melancholy," apparently from the loss of a child, but maybe utter boredom with Murchison. An idea: why not leave her with Mary Anning, for another fee, for the four, or five, or at most six weeks he's off on a trip, so she can have peace and fresh sea air and stop being a dead weight for him for a while? (Of course he doesn't say the latter.) He does leave her, Mary has only a single bed, she can't sit up in a chair all night forever, and of course it's only a matter of time before they fall into each other's arms, or upon each other's crotches.

The most interesting, D.H. Lawrence kind of thing (a feature of the first film) is the little war of wills. Charlotte gets energetic for a change, goes out in a great storm, and takes sick. Her doctor is one of the lovers of God's Own Country, the Romanian-born actor Alec Secareanu, now a "foreign" physician, Dr. Lieberson, who puts her in Mary's care, and Mary brings all the enthusiasm to this that she puts into her science, Charlotte recovers nicely, and they grow close, and closer, and go all the way; in fact Lee is studiously graphic, if only briefly.

But this can't last long, and hasn't the lyricism of Sciamma's other, more prominent seaside, period (eighteenth-century) lesbian affair. This one is less posh and more constrained. It partakes of Lee's desire to focus on the working class. But of course Charlotte isn't that, and she serves to make points about the inherent inequality of the affair. When she offers to help out in the kitchen, it turns out she can't even scrape a carrot. Her assignment to bring in coal from outside occasions one of the film's more memorable moments. Charlotte struggles in with the heavy coal scuttle, drops it, smiles, laughs, bursts into tears, and falls on the floor. This is when you know Saoirse Ronan is a technical actor of skill. So is Winslet, but she plays all in one key, the minor one.

And Winslet's restraint has class. Good restraint must itself be restrained. It must not show too much. She makes you watch her for the glimmer of a smile, and you're hooked. But the final sequence, where Charlotte tries to get Mary to come and live with her and her husband - he won't mind, she says, he's happy with his life as it is - is flat. Mary is too rational and composed. That's fine; she would be. But it just doesn't make good drama. It's simply clear that the affair is over, which we knew already. It's all very sad. But the writing hasn't shown the opening up of Mary's heart enough to make it moving.

But we are happy to know that Mary Anning's former home is now the site of the Lyme Regis Museum - the home of "geology, local maritime history, memorabilia, and writers associated with the town such as Jane Austen and John Fowles," and that Anning's fame has grown considerably since her early death, in 1847, at the age of forty-seven, after a life of high achievement and low recognition.

The cinematography is interesting here, close up and partial often, and in city scenes, crabwise, off center, so wandering costumed extras look more real. Some of the closeups of the principals are unflattering, though, unlike the still above. The images are a hint of what might have been, if Lee had opened up his tale. But he had a mission, and now it has become a mindset. You may not want to watch this anyway for now; it costs a steep $19 to do so online. That doesn't include popcorn. And this could use popcorn.

Ammonite, 120 mins., debuted at Toronto Sept. 2020, and has played in about 19 other festivals including the Hamptons, Mill Valley, London, Chicago, Busan and Singapore. It had a US theatrical release Nov. 13 and internet release Dec. 3. It was called to my attention because it recently was awarded the SFFILM Sloan Science in Cinema Prize. SFFILM kindly gave me access to the film free.

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