Francis Lee’s Ammonite, starring Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet as romantically entangled fossil hunters in 19th century Dorset, has premiered to largely warm reviews at a greatly altered Toronto International Film Festival (Tiff). Originally selected for the Cannes film festival, which was cancelled at the height of the Covid 19 outbreak, the film will now move towards Oscar season in a modestly optimistic mood.
Tiff is, this year, presenting press shows online, but Ammonite was not made available to all remotely accredited journalists. Reviews from in-person screenings ranged from outright raves to more reserved praise.
In a four-star review for the Guardian, Peter Bradshaw celebrated both performances.
“Ammonite is an absorbing drama that sensationally brings together two superlative performers: Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet,” he wrote. “Combining these alpha players doubles or actually quadruples the screen voltage, and their passion co-exists with the cool, calm subtlety with which Lee inspects the domestic circumstances in which their paths crossed.”
Fionnuala Halligan of the influential trade publication Screen Daily was also very much on the film’s side.
“It’s a delight to see Winslet back with a big role, and her pairing with Ronan is quite magnetic,” she wrote. “This sober drama, reminiscent in ways of last year’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire — albeit with fewer flames — will presumably hold out for high-end arthouse acclaim in the UK and similar territories to add to its three prestige festival selections before heading to streaming.”
Some chatter has already gathered around the film’s creative approach to the historical truth. Winslet plays Mary Anning, a distinguished palaeontologist, and Ronan is Charlotte Murchison, her melancholic assistant.
In reality, Murchison was some 10 years older than Anning. The film switches (then increases) the age difference and posits a sexual relationship between the two woman.
“Given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?” he responded.
There was little concern at the film’s freedom with the historical data among the Toronto reviews. Justin Chang of the Los Angeles Times spoke of Ronan “revealing [Murchison’s] luminosity in layers”, but he felt the film belonged to the older actor.
“Ronan and Winslet are beautifully matched, and their characters’ initially combative dynamic makes their eventual surrender all the more moving,” Chang noted. “But this is very much Anning’s story, even if its account of Anning’s life and loves is highly speculative, and it’s Winslet …who holds you like a rock in her palm from start to finish.”
In a five-star rave for the BBC Culture website, Caryn James talked about the film’s restraint.
“If you have seen the film’s trailer, best to shift your expectations,” she explained. “Fiery passion between the women does not emerge until well into the film. Lee’s style is more poetic and suggestive, as he takes advantage of an earlier era’s restraint to create a slow-burn love story.”
Peter Debruge of Variety offered a dissenting note in a review that edged towards the unconvinced.
“Tonally, Ammonite feels oppressively stark, reinforced by a visual palette that’s practically monochromatic: pasty women in black bonnets and frocks, set against grey cliffs and dusty interiors,” he writes.
The generally supportive press coverage does, nonetheless, suggest that Ammonite remains firmly in awards contention. The picture now moves on to a screening at the London Film Festival in October. The distributors will, most probably, position Saoirse Ronan as a contender in the best supporting actress race at the Academy Awards. There will be a long wait until runners and riders emerge. In response to the pandemic, the Oscars have been pushed way back to April 25th.