Fiona Shaw

Ammonite

26/03/21

Apple TV

Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country was one of the most powerful film debuts of recent years – a visceral, unflinching exploration of rural life that would have had James Herriot hiding behind the sofa. For his sophomore effort, Lee has changed the era and the mood, taking us to Lyme Regis in the eighteen hundreds, where fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) plies her trade, selling the smaller pieces she finds on her daily visits to the seashore to holidaymakers. The larger pieces are sold to her male colleagues, who then blatantly take the credit for discovering them. Mary is all too aware of this and, as a result, she’s become a prickly and insular character, a quality that comes across as cantankerous to strangers.

Mary is approached by celebrated palaeontologist Roderick Murchison (James McCardle), who wants to learn from her. He brings with him his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is mourning a recent miscarriage and is quite unable to pull herself out of her melancholy. When Murchison is obliged to move on, he leaves Charlotte with Mary for a few weeks, hoping that working alongside the older woman will help her to recover. Mary is at first horrified at the idea – she values her privacy. But Murchison is wealthy and willing to pay for his wife’s internship – and Mary needs the money.

When Charlotte falls ill with a fever, Mary is obliged to nurse her – and, as the days unfold, the two women manage to breach the wall that has kept them apart – and start to realise they are falling in love…

Mary Anning was, of course, a real person, and very little is known about the reality of her personal life. Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) has been heavily criticised for portraying her as a lesbian, accused of taking liberties with the ‘truth’ about her – though I’m willing to bet that, if the film had featured a fictional heterosexual relationship, nobody would have turned a hair. But, having read up on her, it’s impressive to note how much of the story sticks closely to what we do know about the real Mary Anning. What’s most important here is that, because of her gender, she was discriminated against on a daily basis – even though it is now widely accepted that she was one of the most knowledgable people in her field. Like so many Victorian women, she was a victim of the patriarchy, robbed of the credit for so much of what she achieved.

Winslet is simply terrific in the central role, conveying Anning’s awkwardness and inner turmoil in the stolid set of her shoulders, the furtive glances that seem constantly to be seeking escape. She is a misfit, struggling to survive in a world she’s not cut out for. Ronan too, is completely believable as a young woman searching for consolation after an overwhelming loss – and finding it in an unexpected love affair. Shot in what looks like genuinely horrible weather conditions, St├ęphane Fontaine’s cinematography captures the bleak, rugged beauty of Dorset and this is echoed by a sumptuous score courtesy of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran. If that’s not enough to entice you, there’s also a lovely cameo performance from Fiona Shaw as Mary’s old flame, Elizabeth.

Ammonite may not have the immediate impact of God’s Own Country, but it’s an exquisitely handled film with an absorbing tale to tell. Lee’s central premise seems to be about the trophies we collect in life, from fossilised remains in glass cases to the lives of those who follow us through the twists and turns of history. It’s well worth your attention.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Enola Holmes

28/09/20

Netflix

Let’s get one thing straight, shall we? Enola Holmes is an invention of American author Nancy Springer. The character does not appear in any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories. Furthermore, news that the Conan Doyle estate is in the process of suing Netflix for having the temerity to feature a ‘likeable’ version of the great detective strikes me as faintly absurd. Still, here is the aforementioned Enola, as portrayed by the immensely likeable Millie Bobby Brown, (better known as ’11’ in Stranger Things) in the first of what is intended to be a series of six films – and you know what? It’s really rather good.

Enola is the estranged little sister of Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), though she hasn’t seen either of them since she was a toddler. Brought up by her reclusive mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter) she’s been home-schooled in a whole series of unusual subjects, all designed to develop her mind and (importantly) her martial arts skills.

When Eudoria suddenly disappears without explanation, Enola’s care passes to her humourless guardian, Mycroft, who decides to put her in a finishing school run by the dreaded Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw being suitably repellent). But instead, Enola opts to go in search of her mother, using a series of disguises and the kind of detection skills that Sherlock would be proud of. Along the way, she encounters another runaway, Lord Tewkesbury (Louis Partridge) and it isn’t long before sparks begin to fly between them. But first, there’s a complicated mystery in need of unravelling…

Handsomely mounted and featuring a whole battalion of revered character actors, there’s much here to enjoy, though it really is Millie Bobby Brown who keeps everything bubbling along, maintaining a jovial conversation with the audience as she goes. This is witty, inventive and – unusually for a Holmes project – has a nicely handled feminist subtext at its heart.

Legal actions not withstanding, there’s every reason to believe that Enola Holmes could go on to be an engaging series, but – should it turn out to be a standalone – it’s still an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney