“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

Lady Bird– A Girl’s Flight from Home

Lady Bird movie

by Guest Blogger Bill Clark, photographer, mixed media artist, and fellow movie fiend

“Lady Bird” should have another title. For those of us who remember LBJ’s wife, nicknamed Lady Bird, this title confuses a potential audience.]

Greta Gerwig (first-time director and screenwriter,) takes us on the journey of seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan (of Brooklyn fame; see my review of March 1, 2016 ) , as she navigates parent-child dynamics and the social complexities of her Catholic high school upbringing in Sacramento, California. Set in 2002-2003, the film’s warm colors cast a nostalgic look onto Sacramento, described by Lady Bird as the “Midwest of California.” but Gerwig does not let the film drift into a saccharine coming-of-age story.

We quickly witness sharply worded exchanges between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion McPherson, (the superb Laurie Metcalf, Tony award-winning actress for the 2016 Broadway play, “Doll House Part II” and the much older TV sitcom, “Roseanne”). Lady Bird wants to leave and “go where’s there’s culture, someplace like New York or New Hampshire.” So, they spar mercilessly over Lady Bird’s future after high school.

Her mother, tightly wound, overworked and the daughter of an abusive alcoholic mother, can’t let go of her past. Trying to keep her family financially afloat since the father (Tracy Letts, playwright of “August:Osage County” and actor in “Homeland”) lost his job, she tries to lower the bar for Lady Bird’s dreams but her communication is sometimes unintentionally brutal. Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) supports her through the tortuous teenage angst involving sex, popularity and parents.

Gerwig exposes the emotional sinew of an intelligent adolescent woman from a struggling working class family as she heroically wobbles through managing to be true to herself while trying to repair a tattered, tender relationship with her damaged mother.

Based partly upon her own Catholic upbringing in Sacramento, Gerwig has said that she hopes that, after seeing Lady Bird, viewers will call Mom or Dad, brother or sister, daughter or son. I did.

“Brooklyn” — New World vs. Old

Brooklyn

“Brooklyn”, nominated for a 2016 Academy Award for best picture in a list of much more intensely themed dramas, is an easy movie to fall in love with. A classic boy-meets-girl coming-of-age movie, set in the early 50s and reminiscent of movies of that era. Two young immigrants meet in Brooklyn and fall in love, yet the young woman still yearns for the country and home she left behind. Based on Colm Toibin’s novel of the same title, “Brooklyn” conveys a specific historical time and worldview but the wounds and dilemmas are universal.

Saoirse Ronan plays Ellis, a young Irish woman who has few options back home in the Green Isle. Adventurous but devoted to her widowed mother and sister, she feels unanchored, desperate to find a more welcoming environment in which to navigate her adulthood. Tender-hearted, gentle, and hesitant in speech, Eilis soon falls in love with a young Italian immigrant whose culture is every bit as new to her as living in Brooklyn.

The film “Brooklyn” is much more than a coming-of-age tale, however. It is a story of choosing between the family one grows up in and the one created as an adult. Brooklyn symbolizes new frontiers of freedom and opportunity with little regard to the economic decision Eilis makes. Eilis must find her own identity while choosing between two value systems and two futures.

Ronan, nominated for Best Actress, (and cast in “Atonement”, “Lovely Bones”, and “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) gives a stunning performance as the innocence-lost maiden who has to understand what truly is the nature of home. Her moral choices are somewhat predictable but the dilemma is a universal one—choosing another’s happiness over one’s own, deciding on one’s own future first, or trying to have both. This young twenty-two year old actress is a pleasure to watch as she gains confidence one small victory at a time.

The overarching theme is one of possibility (which can be frightening) and independence(which can be depressing and isolating) versus the tradition and comfort of family. The known vs. the unknown. These are universally relatable. Many have to make the decision of what path to take. These aren’t the life-and-death stakes we see typically in the movies but they’re the decisions that often dictate fates.  “Brooklyn” is classic!