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Focus on Film: Powell River Film Festival preview (Ammonite)

In his latest review, Stephen J. Miller says Ammonite 'goes beyond scratching the surface'

Ammonite is a fictional piece of filmmaking loosely based on the life of famed palaeontologist Mary Anning. The film is set in 1840s England in a small seaside town called Lyme Regis on the English Channel.

Make no mistake, this film is a passionate love story that takes risks that fly in the face of acceptable norms of the time. Anning, played by the wonderful actress Kate Winslet, and Charlotte Murchison, played by equally talented actress Saoirse Ronan, develop a symbiotic relationship that goes from curiosity to want, to need and dependency. Acceptable norms of palaeontologists being only men and man/woman relationships are shattered by Winslet and Ronan, opening up the viewers' imagination of life in 19th century England.

Anning, who specialized in the study of fossils that existed in previous geologic periods, discovered fossils of ammonite, sea creatures in the form of a spiralized shell. Her examination of these fossils parallels her relationship with the convalescing Ronan as she scrapes and dusts the many layers of veneer off the fossils, exposing the beauty of the sea creature as well as exposing the beauty of her relationship with Ronan.

The complexity of their psychological layers weaving throughout each other, both trying to maintain their own identity while at the same time being codependent on each other, tells a beautiful story of two women caught up in their compulsions and desires.

The setting is stunning with production design by Sarah Finlay, camera work by Stephane Fontaine, and costumes by Michael O’Connor, combined with a compelling music score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, creating a mesmerizing series of images.

Kudos to writer/director Francis Lee for holding the moments between Winslet and Ronin for long periods of time as the audience has a chance to study the relationship and pleasantly get lost in the moment. However, there were times I felt these moments were too long and I wanted the story to move along and reveal some more of their motivations and what makes them tick.

I wanted to know more of why Anning was morose and why Charlotte Murchison was convalescing. I could only guess at their need to enter into their complex relationship but I wanted to scratch deeper into their past to discover who they were. Absence of details does make for interesting speculation and discussion by viewers and this in some ways makes for a good piece of filmmaking.

Lee took risks only really good directors and actors can pull off. In the end, I believe they succeeded in creating a beautiful piece of filmmaking worthy of the audience’s time. For these reasons, I give Ammonite three tugboats with a recommendation to see this wonderful film.

Ammonite (run time: 120 minutes) is one of 12 films playing online during Powell River Film Festival with showings available throughout BC any time, any day, from February 5 to 16.

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Stephen J. Miller is a producer and creative writer in feature films and television, and past owner of repertoire movie theatres.