There is something beautiful in watching two lonely, alienated, damaged people guide each other back toward love and life regardless of gender or orientation and for me, that's what makes 'Ammonite' such a special film, writes Cahir O'Doherty.
In his script for his sparse, atmospheric new drama 'Ammonite' (a 19th-century romance featuring Saoirse Ronan 26, and Kate Winslet, 45) Francis Lee lets the landscape and the heavy looks do a lot of the talking, or at least at first.
Set in Dorset, England in the early 1800s, the film tells the story of the real-life English scientist Mary Anning (a self-taught paleontologist) and of the unexpected relationship that blossoms between her and fellow scientist Charlotte Murchison.
If that sounds like a story that might not exactly hold your attention immediately, think again. 'Ammonite' is an understated but powerfully moving story about how women have to work twice as hard for half as much respect or freedom in a man's world, a story that most of us can get behind.
Lee has a reputation for his unflinching realism, which includes matter of fact portrayals of sex and sexuality, so this is breaking new ground for Ronan and Winslet.
But more than anything 'Ammonite' is about how a spirited and determined woman pushes back against the hardscrabble poverty she was raised in to become one of the most important fossil hunters of the 19 century.
But when we meet her, Mary Anning is lonely, insular, suspicious of strangers and so closed down you wonder if she'll ever emerge again. When she meets Charlotte Murchison, the younger woman is suffering from a similar form of isolation, or what her husband calls “melancholia” over what we are led to interpret is the death of her infant or stillborn child.
So Anning finds a companion who is as monosyllabic as herself and soon Charlotte's husband announces he will pay her to teach his young wife about fossils as he takes himself off for a grand European tour alone.
Leaving two brilliant, lonely women in each other's company turns out to be the life-changing event that drives the film. Anning grows suspicious of Murchison's depression and bluntly says so, saying she can find nothing wrong with her at all.
Murchison meanwhile begins to see some hopeful chinks in Anning's armor too and teases at them until the woman hidden underneath starts to slowly emerge under her coaxing.
There is something beautiful in watching two lonely, alienated, damaged people guide each other back toward love and life regardless of gender or orientation and for me, that's what makes 'Ammonite' such a special film. Lee says the film is about loneliness, but it is also about the transformative power of a true friend.
But Lee certainly doesn't make things easy on his protagonists or his audience. The landscapes in the film are often as bleak and stormy as the inner lives of his heroines. Winslet takes the daring path of making her character so gruff as to be almost unlikeable, a tough sell for audiences who like their heroes to be unchallenging.
Ronan banks her fire for the first half of the film the better to reveal the passion hidden underneath when the moment arrives. She is observant, aloof, and then suddenly blossoming under the growing friendship with Anning that turns her post-natal depression around.
The reason that lesbianism was not outlawed in the 19th century was that Queen Victoria refused to accept that it was humanly possible. That is the level of insuperable public ignorance that shapes these women's lives.
Add to that a patriarchal society only too willing to take credit for their discoveries and research and you begin to understand just how much the scales are weighed against these secret lovers.
By creating a plausible lesbian relationship between two historic characters Lee gives them both something to fight back with against their own time, and a relationship to fight for. As you watch 'Ammonite' you begin to appreciate the real heroism is the two women deciding to live on their own terms in their own time.
Because for Lee heroism isn't making big speeches it's about making commitments, often in the face of adversity, and with the ever-present understanding that the only thing that remains of us is love.
'Ammonite' will open in select theaters and be available on Premium Video On Demand on December 4.