Verdict: Jurassic larks
Verdict: A Turner to prize
Palaeontology, the study of fossils, is not the sexiest of subjects. Nor, usually, is early Victorian England.
In Ammonite, writer-director Francis Lee overcomes these problems by casting Kate Winslet as his fossil expert and giving her a lesbian relationship with a married protegee played by Saoirse Ronan.
At a stroke, 19th-century palaeontology is sexed up, becoming the tale of a woman who finds herself between a rock and a soft place.
There is no evidence that Mary Anning, Winslet’s character, was a lesbian. We do know that her discoveries of fossils on the Dorset coast transformed understanding of prehistoric life, and that because she was female, and from humble stock, the scientific establishment of the 1840s snubbed her.
She is said, by the way, to have been the inspiration for the tongue-twister ‘She sells seashells by the seashore’.
In Ammonite, writer-director Francis Lee overcomes these problems by casting Kate Winslet (right) as his fossil expert and giving her a lesbian relationship with a married protegee played by Saoirse Ronan (left)
We also know that she struck up a friendship with a woman called Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), whose husband Roderick was an acclaimed geologist.
But the real-life Charlotte was a decade older than Mary. Lee switches the age difference, doubles it and makes them lovers.
With that gigantic slab of artistic licence, the story becomes one of a clandestine relationship, although Lee keeps us waiting for the love that dared not speak its name.
Anning lives with her widowed mother Molly (a pinched Gemma Jones) in Lyme Regis. It is a gloomy household, with much to be gloomy about.
Mary squeezes a modest living out of selling her fossils, forcing her to deal with the public she appears to despise, while Molly, who has lost eight babies, instead mothers a collection of china dogs rather like Olivia Colman’s Queen Anne in The Favourite (2018), who kept rabbits as proxies for her 17 dead children.
With that gigantic slab of artistic licence, the story becomes one of a clandestine relationship, although Lee keeps us waiting for the love that dared not speak its name
The Favourite was a sapphic period drama too, of course; and there have been several others recently, including Colette, Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, and on TV the excellent Gentleman Jack.
It feels like one of the odder responses to #MeToo, purging history of men, or at least making them dispensable.
In Ammonite there are only two of any significance: a dishy foreign doctor (Alec Secareanu), whose attempted wooing of Mary falls on very stony ground; and pompous Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), callously indifferent to his fragile wife.
She suffers from ‘mild melancholia’ and when he heads off on a geological expedition, he leaves her in Mary’s care. For the first hour of the film, Lee is at pains to show us that Mary gets on much better with inanimate objects than animate ones, although an awkward encounter with a genteel townswoman played by Fiona Shaw hints heavily at a previous lesbian romance.
With that gigantic slab of artistic licence, the story becomes one of a clandestine relationship, although Lee (left with Kate Winslet) keeps us waiting for the love that dared not speak its name.
Dialogue is achingly sparse; Winslet and Ronan do more acting with their eyes than with their lips. But lips will have their moment. After 43 minutes, Charlotte cracks a smile. After 52 minutes, Mary follows suit. A little bit later, they smile at each other.
And soon these two women, buttoned-up in more ways than one, have managed to divest themselves of their copious undergarments and are having decidedly raunchy sex.
Their romance unlocks emotions in both of them, and because Winslet and Ronan are both such fine actresses, they keep us engaged. Can their love survive or will it, prey to the constraints of polite society, hit the rocks?
It is one of the failings of Ammonite that these are really the only rocks that interest us.
Lee, whose only previous feature God’s Own Country (2017) was also about a gay relationship, has in a curious way done Anning the same disservice as her stuffy contemporaries, making her sex more important than her work.
Another singular woman, Tina Turner, is the subject of a terrific documentary, Tina, in which the male of the species is again cast in an unforgiving light.
Another singular woman, Tina Turner, is the subject of a terrific documentary, Tina, in which the male of the species is again cast in an unforgiving light
Come to think of it, that was also true of two other compelling chronicles of abused and exploited singing superstars, both also given an evocative, single-name title: Amy (2015) and Whitney (2018).
In the case of Tina Turner’s abuser, her Svengali-like first husband Ike who forced his name on her along with much else, it’s hard to forgive.
He beat her with wire coat hangers, then raped her, and her account of the night she finally left him is one of the film’s most riveting moments.
But it is also an uplifting story of survival, and contains at least one treasurable item of music trivia: Tina Turner’s thunderous 1984 anthem What’s Love Got To Do With It was a cover version of a song previously recorded by… Buck’s Fizz. I never knew that before, and I’m glad I do now.
- Ammonite is available on digital platforms now. Tina is on Sky Documentaries, Now TV and altitude.film from Sunday.
Not even Judi can escape this one…
Six Minutes To Midnight (12A)
Six Minutes to Midnight has a great title (it refers to the code for a secret phone number, Whitehall 1154), a great cast (including Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent) and a great premise, weaving a spy thriller out of the extraordinary true story of an Anglo-German finishing school in Bexhill-on-Sea in East Sussex attended by the daughters of senior Nazis, which stayed open until the very eve of World War II.
Unfortunately, it’s a desperately clunky affair in which co-writer Eddie Izzard is miscast as an English teacher planted in the school by military intelligence.
Dame Judi, who plays the school’s guileless headmistress, has teamed up before to great effect with a stand-up comedian, namely Billy Connolly in the charming 1997 drama Mrs Brown. But Izzard never looks comfortable, while benefiting in a way from a screenplay so ropey in parts that you wonder whether maybe we’re meant to laugh, as when the girls line a staircase and sing in an unwitting pastiche of the ‘So Long, Farewell’ scene in The Sound Of Music.
It’s a desperately clunky affair in which co-writer Eddie Izzard is miscast as an English teacher planted in the school by military intelligence. Pictured: Eddie Izzard and Judi Dench
Made in Italy (15)
James D’Arcy, who has an acting role in Six Minutes To Midnight, is also the writer-director behind Made In Italy, a ‘bittersweet comedy’ pairing Liam Neeson with his son Micheal Richardson.
Unfortunately, this too is a crashing disappointment, blighted by lumpen acting, unconvincing dialogue and forced slapstick.
What it does have, however, is plenty of gorgeous Tuscan scenery as widowed painter Robert Foster (Neeson) and his semi-estranged son Jack (Richardson) restore an old family house there, prior to selling it so that Jack can buy his ex-wife out of her London art gallery.
The idea is that the adventure heals their relationship. But it’s so inexpertly done, so stuffed with caricatures, that I found myself wishing on the unlikeable Jack the usual fate of Neeson’s on-screen offspring. Where’s Taken 4 when you need it?
Tom & Jerry The Movie (PG)
Finally, do we need Tom & Jerry The Movie, which I reviewed in detail in Wednesday’s paper? I think we could use some collective family fun right now, and this mash-up, plonking the venerable cartoon characters into real-life Manhattan, ticks at least some of the right boxes.
All available on digital platforms now.