Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Reviews of AMMONITE and PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE: Ladies in Love

December 23, 2020

In the 1840s, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was a noted paleontologist who had unearthed fossils which had been on display in the British Museum. One day, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) visited Mary at her workshop in Lyme Regis to observe her work. He then endorsed his sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to Mary's care while he went on a European tour. After a rough start caused by their numerous differences, the two women eventually develop a passionate friendship with each other. 

This film is bound to attract Oscar attention given that both lead actresses are Oscar favorites. Winslet had 7 nominations (with one win) while Ronan had 4, and perhaps an additional nomination is forthcoming for both of them for their passionate performances here. Both stars were on their A-game here as expected -- Winslet with Mary's rough arduous lifestyle and Ronan with Charlotte's delicate constitution. Their A-list stature certainly gave that certain ultra-sensual bed scene between them shock value.

There was a stark contrast between the social status of Mary and Charlotte here, and that was very much part of the bigger story here, aside from the romance aspects. The cinematography and the production design fully immersed us into the gritty circumstances where the story took place. However, it was also this same grit that somehow gave this period lesbian love story a dour and uncomfortable atmosphere, making the proceedings feel rather cold and distant, instead of warm and intimate. 7/10.


The story of "Ammonite" called to mind a recent period lesbian romantic film, Celine Sciamma's "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (2019). This had been cited as one of the best films of 2019, but surprisingly it was not France's submission to the Best International Film, nor was it nominated in any category at the Oscars. It did win Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival 2019 where it had its world premiere as a Palm d'Or contender.

In 1770, an artist Marianne (Noémie Merlant) arrived at an estate on an island in Britanny to paint the wedding portrait of the reluctant bride Héloïse (Adèle Haenel) who was about to get married to a Milanese nobleman chosen by her class-conscious mother (Valeria Golino). 

At first, Heloise was aloof and refused to pose, so Marianne had to paint her only from her observations from a distance without Heloise's knowledge. However, as they spent more time together, the two eventually develop a deep and passionate friendship with each other.

The film was a clear labor of love by writer-director Celine Sciamma, imbuing this beautiful film with so much warmth and intimacy (that "Ammonite" lacked). Paralleling Marianne's occupation as an artist, Sciamma also painted her cinematic canvas with rich (mostly primary) colors and poetic imagery (particularly that haunting scene referred to in the title). The two main actresses Merlant and Haenel played their respective characters with so much restraint such that we can only feel from their facial expressions what was on their minds that they could not express in words. 8/10. 

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