Ammonite is Francis Lee's coastal tale of a rocky romance between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Maxwell Tait takes us through that and two other films set in the county of Dorset, for all the caravan-driving, biscuit-eating, and premature sunburn of a Great British seaside holiday you're missing out on.
“It is a woman's position to care for a fellow sister, is it not?”
You have to feel bad for Francis Lee. Let’s get straight to the giant, Natural History Museum woolly mammoth in the room. Halfway through the edit of Lee’s second film Ammonite, the follow up to his widely-acclaimed debut feature God’s Own Country, Céline Sciamma’s superlative Portrait of a Lady on Fire was announced to play at Cannes. There’s Lee, stood over a nice pot of stew, checking for seasoning, when suddenly the doorbell goes — it’s Snoop Dogg with every kind of takeaway within a 5 mile radius. In imagery, tone, and set pieces, there are a multitude of unfortunately coincidental similarities between the two; it isn’t as simple as putting all lesbian coastal period-dramas into a box. Ammonite isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but it is difficult not to think of it as Portrait of a Cold, Rainy Night in Stoke.
Kate Winslet leads as the pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning, who we find content with her quiet, grumpy life in Lyme Regis, running a fossil shop, and living in a humble cottage with her mother (Gemma Jones). Like the fossils she devotes her life to, she is cold, hard, and teeming with history. To those that don’t know their stones, Anning was responsible for many significant geological discoveries in her lifetime. Her work is all the more impressive when you consider that The Geological Society of London — who provided annuities to Anning, and recorded her death to breast cancer at the age of 47 — did not even admit women as members until 57 years later.
Get to the romance, I hear. The shop doorbell rings, Mary doesn’t even look up — “We’re closed.” In marches the top-hatted Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), he’s come down from London and wants to learn a thing or two from master Anning. It’s a very funny exchange — Mr Murchison sounds like a city boy that’s bumped into Tracy Emin at Liverpool Street Spoons: “I just think what you do is amazing.”
Who’s that woman he’s with? The one that’s mastered the art of rolling her eyes at everything her husband does without actually rolling her eyes? It’s Saiorse Ronan, of course, as Charlotte Murchison. Mr Murchison gets his way and spends some time chasing an unimpressed Mary across the beaches of Dorset, occasionally being handed fossilised faeces. He’s the kind of man that orders for his wordless wife in restaurants: “The plain white fish. Baked, no sauce.” Call the police, someone’s leaked the GB News recruitment policy.
Mr Murchison heads back to London, but not before paying Mary to look after his wife, who needs to take more sea air to treat her “mild melancholia”. Whoops mate. Doesn’t he know this is a lesbian romance? And so, inevitability, the cold hearts of Winslet and Ronan gently thaw.
The pair of them gift Ammonite with two commanding performances, which contribute to the films impressive emotional maturity. Sound design is sound; it’s all chirping and lapping waves, reflecting the gentle, consistent tone. Costumes are perfect, compounding our historical immersion. But the whole thing is just a little cold. The story telling is commendable, but it’s all mid-shots and handheld cameras — the beautiful South West coast is crying out for a bit more framing and artistry. Perhaps that’s an unfair argument though, “Why isn’t red blue?”
If Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels like some kind of magical dream, then Ammonite certainly succeeds in adding a little grit and realism into the mix, though dulling these colours comes at the expense of something. Admittedly, this might be a class thing: Mary and Charlotte do not have the luxury of Marianne and Héloïse’s idyllic French island retreat, their Dorset version must weather more, where they share a small bed and eat modest food.
Ultimately, a subconscious goal of films like Ammonite must be to quite literally consign the archaic and foul idea of homosexuality as a taboo to history. And if a reasonably valid criticism of a gay period drama is that it’s lacking a little edge, then we must be making some progress in the right direction. Ammonite is an absorbing, well-told and faultlessly performed drama, if not quite riveting — just make sure not to watch it with your parents.
Ammonite is available to rent on BFI Player.
Nuts in May (Leigh, 1976)
It’s the film that spawned a thousand Vic & Bob characters. Originally broadcast as part of the BBC’s celebrated anthology-drama strand Play for Today, Nuts in May is a fantastic early work in the decade-spanning career of Mike Leigh.
The Pratts drive their Morris Minor down from the bustle of Croydon for a relaxing, if rigorously-scheduled, camping holiday in Dorset. Keith Pratt (Roger Sloman) believes in chewing his food 72 times, pronounces “here” “hya”, and reads the Guinness Book of Records before bed. Candice-Marie Pratt (Alison Steadman) expounds the harmfulness of second hand smoke, has a cat shaped hot water bottle called Prudence that she kisses goodnight, and collects pebbles. They’re like a scout and girl-guide Christian power couple.
Together, the Pratts are staunch advocates of the countryside code; they visit Corfe Castle, hunt for free-range eggs and unpasteurised milk, and sing songs as a banjo/guitar duo. But it wouldn’t be a proper camping experience without neighbours pitching too close to you, playing radios too loud, drinking noisily, and starting open fires in violation of the campsite regulations. Fortunately, Keith Pratt is not afraid of making a citizen's arrest.
Nuts in May is very seventies, but it also perfectly captures certain facets of Britishness that could survive an apocalypse, such is their resilience. And I mean that more in a fifty-year old luminous Quavers packet you spot out the train window while at a red-signal sense, as opposed to patriotic vomit-copy from a flyer through your door courtesy of your pro-Brexit local MP. It’s like a controlled experiment in British values: regional suspicion, class tension, and mouth-frothing passive aggression, all in a campsite in the beautiful countryside. When people don’t get things ‘right’, the Pratt’s will let them know.
To give too much credit to Steadman, Sloman, and the rest of the cast would be impossible. Rarely will you see such well-judged comic performances, a tightrope of bonkers caricature-exaggeration that somehow — somehow — never falters into being unbelievable. Quite apart from Ben Wheatley’s whacky homage Sightseers, a lot of the best of British comedy owes a great debt to the timeless colour and character of Nuts in May.
Nuts in May is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Moonfleet (Lang, 1955)
Smugglers and coves, treasure and tunnels; Moonfleet is a tame attempt to plunder some of the success of Disney’s Treasure Island five years prior, just as author J. Meade Falkner was guilty of doing in 1898, fifteen years after Robert Louis Stevenson. An orphan boy by the name of John Mohune (Jon Whitely) is sent to a small West Dorset village in search of Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), a ‘friend’ of his late mother. Respectable gentleman by day, dastardly rogue smuggler by night, Fox is initially reluctant to the idea of becoming John’s custodian. But if there is a diamond to be found, he’ll happily collaborate with the young orphan for some good old fashioned code-cracking and treasure-hunting.
There’s nothing wrong with the film's fairly dilute, swashbuckling fun, and its whimsical sense of adventure is supported by a rambunctious score that sounds like Greensleeves stuffed through a meat grinder. It’s what teenagers might’ve watched hungover on a Sunday afternoon if Channel 5 existed fifty years ago. None of this is particularly striking, until you realise that Moonfleet is a film made by none other than Fritz Lang, the German expressionist director most famous for Metropolis and M, and perhaps one of the most influential filmmakers of all time.
We're still in a theoretical Dorset, even if the few scenes not shot on the MGM backlot are on California beaches, masquerading as the south-west coast of England. Spooky statues and gloomy caves provide the occasional shady moment, but ultimately give way to the feeling you’ve downloaded a film on Limewire that an internet joker has falsely attributed to the man dubbed by the BFI as the “Master of Darkness.” It remains truly baffling that esteemed French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma once voted Moonfleet the 32nd most influential film ever made, just above The Godfather.
Child actors are easy targets, especially considering the difficult job they have. And accounts state that John Whitely, nine years old at the time of shooting, was treated with contempt by Lang, an associate producer overhearing the director chastising him as “stupid and lazy.” As well as being unpleasant, it clearly didn’t do any good — you could probably teach a wheelie bin to say “yes sir” and “no sir” with an unconvincing Irish accent and end up with a slightly better performance. Having said that, it just contributes to the overall school-play campness of Moonfleet. Probably not what Lang intended, but daft fun nonetheless.