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Film review: Ammonite and Wander Darkly

16 April 2021

Stephen Brown reviews current film releases

Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in Ammonite

Kate Winslet as Mary Anning in Ammonite

THE writer-director Francis Lee’s Ammonite (Cert. 15) is, he says, “an imagined, respectful snapshot” of the palaeontologist Mary Anning (1799-1847) (Faith, 2 November 2018), a working-class Dissenter, largely ignored by the Anglican-dominated scientific community. The Revd William Conybeare issued the first academic paper based on young Mary’s discovery of a huge ichthyosaur. Another cleric, William Buckland, accompanied her on many expeditions, which convinced him and others that these fossils had been living creatures.

Rather than Mary’s geological discoveries, what attracts Lee is her refusal to conform. Mary (Kate Winslet) lives from hand to mouth with her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). As portrayed here, they are enclosed personalities, barely speaking to one another, let alone anyone else. Mary’s education at the Lyme Regis Congregationalist Sunday School gave her a start to pursuing the interests for which she’s now remembered. Lee, however, concentrates on how we can be sprung from pasts that entomb us.

An opportunity comes along to care for a gentleman’s depressed wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). At first, a financial transaction is all it is. This is where the ammonite metaphor comes rather heavy-handedly into play. The film is a study of two fossilised people locked away inside themselves. Each needed someone to chip off the outer crust that concealed their true selves. In this male-dominated milieu, Lee explores the difficulties that scarred females experience in being open and vulnerable enough to be loved. Social and geographical isolation, on account of gender and class, has closed down any life of the spirit. Work and duty have replaced affection and intimacy.

The whole of Ammonite is, in effect, a fiction. Lee admits that there is no evidence that Mary ever had sexual relationships of any kind. Mary battles with a God-ordained way of life, one set in stone. Her daily task along a Jurassic coastline where the sea gives up its dead is to discover how the past is a commentary on our present. By the careful breaking of rocks, her trained eye discerns in all its beauty elemental aspects of creation and its Creator, although Ammonite doesn’t overtly explore Mary’s religious beliefs.

While church bells chime, she toils away. (There is evidence in later years that she regularly attended Anglican worship.) Earlier, when Charlotte remains unwell, Mary buys restorative medicine from a former lover, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw). Unresolved feelings about their failed relationship are expressed in terms of not having seen Mary in church recently.

In this tenderly underplayed scene, we witness someone who has retreated back into her shell. Even after Charlotte subsequently releases her from this carapace, Mary remains suspicious of well-intentioned efforts to create a new life together. Something inside that was always denied still has power. Throughout the film, we, like Mary, are being asked why seek the living among the dead, when all the time love bids us welcome, if we can but accept the invitation. Ammonite may take some time in extracting the gem buried beneath aeons of sediment, but it’s a tale worth telling.


THE film Wander Darkly (Cert. 15), neatly packaged as a thriller, is in effect a fascinating take on the study of solipsism. The philosophical theory that nothing in this present world exists except me and my senses is turned on its head.

Diego Luna and Sienna Miller as Matteo and Adrienne in Wander Darkly

After a horrendous car crash, Adrienne (Sienna Miller) wonders whether she exists any longer. At hospital, not only are there out-of-body experiences, but, in the morgue, we’re looking down at her corpse. Believing that she has died, Adrienne is dismissive of the interchanges with her partner, Matteo (Diego Luna), who has survived the accident. Couldn’t all of this be like a dream? By way of proving that she is no longer here, there is an attempt to throw herself harmlessly from a bridge. Matteo rescues her. “Spending eternity on the freeway? Did we deserve that?” he asks. Or, she retorts, is this purgatory?

Despite his various means of demonstrating that she is still alive, Adrienne distrusts them all. “What if you’re wrong? What if it’s a sad story?” Through a series of conversations, they recall their memories of key stages in their relationship, but recollections vary. Adrienne is mostly negative about her treatment, perceiving herself as victim. Matteo sees things differently. At root, there is a growing apart over time which makes each regard the other as an unreliable narrator. We know from the flashbacks that both agree that their early days together were blissful.

In one scene, there is a copy of Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul on Adrienne’s bookshelf. Sight of this solipsistic novel acts as a portent of the Proustian introspection that is to follow. What we don’t know is whether all this anguish is just in Adrienne’s head, or a call to Matteo from the beyond. If the latter, then, in contrast with films such as Carousel, Ghost, and The Sixth Sense, Adrienne is not a kindly spirit assuring those left behind that they will never walk alone. Her Roman Catholic upbringing affords little hope or comfort. “What if after you die it’s bad, an extension of your worst fears?” she asks Matteo. Separation from her baby daughter and resentment over Matteo’s resistance to being married or committed to a career both feed this soul’s torment.

Wander Darkly poses many questions to do with human existence and purpose. At one point, Adrienne watches the film Night of the Living Dead; but is this woman the zombie that she thinks she is?Sporting a Nirvana T-shirt for much of the film may suggest that Adrienne aspired after that transcendent state of release from worldly cares. That would leave much unfinished business.

In a moment of self-revelation, she acknowledges how hard she had made it for Matteo to love her. She craves time for amendment of life. This is where a quasi-Buddhist outlook gives way to hope of resurrection. Or does it?


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