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Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan back in Oscar race for lesbian romance 'Ammonite'

"Ammonite" takes place in 1840s England, where a female fossil hunter develops a passionate love affair with a young woman recovering from a personal tragedy.
Image: Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite.Courtesy Neon
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES - Indie distributor Neon has shown the power of storytelling in three short, but very successful years. Starting in 2017 with "I, Tonya," which earned an Oscar for Allison Janney in the supporting actress category, it continued its hot streak in 2019, when Bong Joon Ho's "Parasite" made history by winning best picture. The movie took home three additional prizes, including director, original screenplay and international feature.

"Parasite" was not only the distributor's first best picture win, but it became the first foreign-language picture to win Oscar's most coveted prize. It was also a massive box office victor and Neon's highest-grossing film to date. Co-founders Tom Quinn and Tim League may not have envisioned the production company would be a catalyst in breaking down cultural barriers for the industry, but the trend continues with their newest drama, "Ammonite." Debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night, the movie is another notable entry that will likely make ripples this awards season.

From writer-director Francis Lee, "Ammonite" takes place in 1840s England, where acclaimed, but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) works alone under rough and brutal conditions on the southern coastline. With her famed days behind her, she now spends her time hunting for common fossils to sell to wealthy tourists to support herself and her ailing, widowed mother (Gemma Jones). When tourist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) arrive at her shop, Roderick entrusts his wife, who is recovering from a personal tragedy, to Mary while he finishes the leg of a European tour. The two women develop a passionate and all-consuming love affair that will have them defying the social bounds of their time.

Lee, who helmed the 2017 romantic drama "God's Own Country," may have found his big break into the mainstream industry. In his sophomore directorial effort, he steers an organic and elegant vessel with Winslet and Ronan delivering on multiple fronts. There will be varying comparisons to films such as "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" (another Neon roster) and "Blue Is the Warmest Color," which are apt. Erotically charged, but respectfully framed, Lee, alongside cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, uses the camera effortlessly to demonstrate the evolving emotions surrounding love and attraction. Lingering in the moments on Winslet's stoic and brooding facial expressions, the film is able to mostly capture the complexity of its themes while remaining observant of its objectives.

"Ammonite" is the type of film that can easily find its way onto Oscar's radar and rally support from the technical branches. Utilizing editor Chris Wyatt once more, Lee's film finds an adequate pace, but this may be a project that doesn't have enough swagger to keep the attention of the more conservative or traditional movie watchers. Other romantic dramas have faltered when passing through the editor's branch ("Brokeback Mountain" and "Carol," for example). The LGBTQ-themed films that manage to grab the branch's attention are often accompanied with big musical sequences ("Bohemian Rhapsody").

The talented composing duo of Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, who found attention in 2016 for "Lion" from the Academy, is firmly in the conversation for another nomination for the subtle, more refined composition.

When it comes to its stars, you have two actors with a staggering 11 Oscar nominations between them. Winslet, who won best actress in 2008 for her performance in Stephen Daldry's "The Reader," is captivating. Coming very close to topping her career best turn in 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," Winslet has landed strongly in what looks to be an exciting year for best actress. The seven-time nominee currently holds the record for the youngest actress to garner five Oscar nominations by the age of 31 (and six nominations at 33). After March 15, the day that the Oscar nominations are announced, one of those records very well may be removed as her co-star Ronan is once again, invaluable.

Ronan, 26, who has received four prior Oscar nominations since 2007's "Atonement," will probably tack on one more in her already incredible career. Likely to campaign in the supporting actress race, which may upset the ardent vocalists of campaign fraud (I am one of these vocalists), the script doesn't develop Ronan's character to its full realization. Ronan does an excellent job at elevating Charlotte's seemingly one-note, melancholy demeanor, but the film struggles to give any more knowledge of her, besides what Ronan can convey.

The film belongs heavily to Winslet's Mary. We walk through her world, exploring her family dynamic, her mother's history and her past love life. There's nothing beyond Charlotte besides what we see at the moment. With that said, Ronan delivers her most mature outing yet, which could assemble a groundswell around the Irish actress who is due for an Oscar win.

A realization that comes by the credit's end is how the industry has been searching for their next "Meryl Streep," the one that's going to be able to take up the mantle if and when Meryl slows down her awards game. For a long time, Cate Blanchett was dubbed "next in line" for the title, given her trajectory with the Academy. I'm firmly of the thought that Ronan is not going to slow down anytime soon, and will continue to challenge and push the boundaries for herself. With a career that's included "Lady Bird" and "Brooklyn," there's still a lot more to anticipate.

"Ammonite" is distributed by Neon and is set to open in theaters on Nov. 13.

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