“Ammonite”–Two Women Shedding Their Shell

This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight.   Ammonite, set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).  Their friendship transforms both of their lives.

Charlotte Murchison visits Mary Anning’s fossil shop with her dilettante husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who wishes to observe Mary discovering the fossils that have made her well-known at the British Museum yet paradoxically unknown.  Charlotte is supposed to convalesce by the sea while her husband seeks Mary’s know-how and ostensibly hopes to elevate his reputation without attribution to Mary’s tutelage.

Ammonite film

Living a solitary and deeply lonely existence with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who plays with nine ceramic figurines symbolizing the deceased children, Mary is not interested at all in Roderick’s offer to pay generously for a “tour” of her fossil sites.  Reluctantly, at her mother’s urging, she obliges his request.

Mary silently and coldly witnesses how Roderick treats his wife more roughly than he would the delicate care required for revealing the beauty of a fossil.  As a talented paleontologist who discovers what lies beneath the surface, Mary has little use for either of them.

Disenchanted with his beautiful young wife “who used to shine and dazzle”, Roderick abandons her while he continues his explorations abroad.  In the interim, we see Anning slowly uncover the intrinsic beauty of Charlotte.

The grey of Ammonite’s cinematography, underscoring the depressing and cold isolation of both Mary and Charlotte, is sharply contrasted to the color in the scenes of their friendship and intimacy.   Both actors’ faces convey the inner conflict and almost unbearable loneliness in one exquisitely graceful scene after the next. Nothing is  forced or manufactured and both Winslet and Ronan are evenly matched, seasoned performers whose intelligent decisions never misfire.  Both characters, at times, seem to be screaming for help from the bottom of a well.  Viewers first see the two women detached and wounded, their icy cold veneers slowly warming and cracking, revealing buried vulnerability needing to be excavated.

There’s so much grace and nuance in these two actors’ performance with remarkably little dialogue and no narration.  Individual, wordless moments that express both an understated delight and the devastating knowledge that it may not last are superimposed upon an extraordinarily palpable chemistry between Ronan and Winslet.

Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical drama, biopics, and women’s history.

Note:  Anning was a genuine legend in her own time.  Her fossil shop is now the Lyme Regis Museum.  For an interesting article on the historical accuracy of her life and the film’s interpretation of her friendship with Murchison, see the March 20, 2019 article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/mary-anning-lesbian-palaeontologist-women-film

“Man in an Orange Shirt”–Thwarted Love

 

Man in an Orange Shirt

Man in an Orange Shirt, commissioned by BBC to celebrate the 50th anniversary of partial decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967, depicts with a modicum of success two love stories spanning seventy years. The first between two gay men hiding their passion and the second involving a duplicitous marriage of one-sided passion. Scripted by novelist Patrick Gale and partly autobiographical, Man in an Orange Shirt revisits prejudice and its impact on all.

Spanning three generations in one family, –from wartime Great Britain to the present day,– Man in an Orange Shirt uncovers secret love letters, a mysterious painting, and deep unfulfilled desires on the part of all characters.

The gently wrenching story of repressed love follows a secret romance between two World War Two soldiers Michael (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Thomas (James McArdle), and the resulting, heartbreaking impact on Michael’s wife Flora (Joanna Vanderham of “Paradise”). Compounding the heartbreak is Vanessa Redgrave who plays the octogenarian Flora trying to reconcile with a gay grandson.

Flora is furious at her husband’s sexual betrayal, but also frightened for him since homosexuality is a criminal offense. She and Michael share a sibling-like affection for each other, even though Flora wants and expects more. All three–Flora, Michael, and Thomas–are casualties, trapped by fear of prison, fear of marital rejection and fear of being a social outcast. Abrupt truncation of the secretive lives of all three leave the viewer wondering how they muddled through the superficiality of their everyday existence.

Fast forward to present day, when homosexuality is no longer criminalized, but tragedy and hurt still arise. “Gay shame” resides in the breathing space between the beloved grandmother Flora (Redgrave) and her grandson Adam (Julien Morris). Decades removed from her younger self, Grandma Flora has spent the best part of her life pretending her marriage was solid.  In 2017 Adam admits he feels gay shame, even in the present climate of assumed equality and openness. Appearing to function in a gay world, Adam’s terror at intimacy and commitment is palpable, in spite of a seemingly privileged life with dating apps to staunch his boredom.

A Man in an Orange Shirt has some touching moments between Michael and Thomas, and particularly between Flora and Adam, but the pivotal conversation about Adam’s sexuality lacks emotional heft and authenticity. The scene should have resonated deeply for many who are close to their grandparents. Redgrave’s performance as a woman who never had her husband’s love turns too artificial and overwrought as she transforms into an understanding and accepting figure for Adam.

I was disappointed in this dual story of thwarted love. “Call Me By Your Name”, an Academy Award-nominated film for 2018, reflects rejecting love for the sake of social convention with more power, authenticity, and emotion.  In sharp contrast, A Man in an Orange Shirt, is inconsistent and therefore forgettable.

Note:  Available on PBS.com