In stark contrast to yesterday’s screenings, the final day of press screenings before the official last day of the London Film Festival tomorrow, brought naught but peace, love and positivity, bringing my festival experience to a close with a high. We had Lover’s Rock, the second part of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, slices of life of London’s Afro-Caribbean community in the 20th century, a restoration of Peter Wollen’s thoughtful and charming sci-fi chamber piece Friendship’s Death, and the official closing film of the festival, Ammonite, director Francis Lee’s follow up to the celebrated God’s Own Country.
Bringing with it perhaps the festival’s two biggest A-listers, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite re-imagines a chapter in the life story of the humble grandmother of palaeontology, Mary Anning, as a poignant period romance. Director Francis Lee invests the film with the same Earthy sexual frankness he brought to God’s Own Country, and Winslet and Ronan each give typically strong performances.
Little is known about Anning, as her work discovering many valuable specimens along Dorset’s Jurassic Coastline went largely unrecognised by the scientific community in her lifetime. Although what is known that she never married, had no children, and had a lifelong friendship with geologist Charlotte Murchison. From this, Lee’s film speculates a romance between Anning and Murchison, played here by Winslet and Ronan, the two women meeting after Murchison’s husband imposes his melancholic wife on Anning’s care. As a result of this diversion from the known facts, the role of biographical inspiration is all but incidental, there’s little focus on Anning’s life and work, taking it as a mere jumping off point for a pure romance. Instead the film attacks its themes of women’s undernourished role in history through the liberties it takes with the biographical history.
The film’s opening scene at the London Natural History Museum perfectly articulates this central theme, as a cleaning woman is brushed rudely aside as Anning’s most celebrated find is carried in, appraised and her nametag removed from the display. From here on we see some neatly articulated moments where women’s perceptions on reality are diminished, from Anning’s scientific knowledge to Murchison’s belief that grim weather and winter bathing will likely not improve her temper.
Ronan’s performance in these latter scenes is precisely what marks her out as one of the most articulate actors of her generation, while Gemma Jones, who plays Anning’s mother Molly, wrings every ounce of tragedy out of a porcelain sheep that she can. The spectre of infant mortality is a near constant background presence in the film, something that the characters bear in silence, as expected of them at the time. However, despite this, the film does have a thin vein of solid, subtle humour running through it, as Anning’s working class directness abrades against Murchison’s wilting flower. Sadly, as brilliant as many parts of the film were, I did find some aspects of the film difficult to get along with. For one, Fiona Shaw is a wasted presence in the film, playing a character from Anning’s past who gets barely any development.
Far more severe an issue though are the fortunes of the fictional romance at the film’s centre. I understand the thinking behind this approach: the theme is the lost history of women and their inner lives, so speculating something the two women may have kept hidden from posterity is an idea that has some merit. However, I would find this fabrication easier to swallow had I found the romance stronger, and better felt the chemistry between the two leads. Though I understand how this film’s Anning might easily become infatuated with Charlotte, I didn’t quite feel the reverse, despite the most romantic scene of palaeontology in cinema history.
I’m not sure wherein the fault lies, with the writing or the performances. Ronan, as I’ve stated, is always phenomenal, yet the deeper we got into the weeds of the romance the less I believed her character’s motives. Meanwhile Winslet, though a stunning actor at times, and giving a thoroughly serviceable performance, did strike me as miscast from the very beginning. Whenever a high-profile part as a queer character comes around, and inevitably goes to a straight performer, the ethics of such casting choices are always rightly discussed. Many argue that there simply aren’t the A-list queer actors to take A-listed roles, which is a bit of a Catch-22: there’s no queer A-listers because the A-list roles go to straight actors, and we can’t cast queer actors in A-list roles because they’re not A-listers yet.
My own stance on such issues is that so long as the performances are convincing, I’m fine with casting against gender or sexual orientation. I had no issue with the straight leads of Blue Is the Warmest Colour because I cannot think how their performances could have been improved upon in any way. However, if the performances fail to fully convince, as I believe they do here, then I’m inclined to look less kindly on the casting decision. Perhaps choosing two lesbian actors would not only have raised the profiles of those actors, but also made the film’s fiction more compelling.
Ultimately, Ammonite is just a very odd film. It’s an odd way to do a romance and it’s an even odder way to do a biopic. I hate to find myself advocating for less queer visibility in the mainstream, but in this case I must question the decision to take the life story of women who were not, so far as we know, lesbians, write them as a couple, and then cast a pair of straight women to play them. It’s like taking a round drill-bit and a round peg, and insisting the hole be square.
I do not wish to overstate my issues with Ammonite though. Whatever my reservations, particularly with the contrived romance, it is a subtle, poignant and atmospheric film with plenty of ambiance, and it’s carried perfectly well by the undeniable star power of its two leads. It’s just that I can see the truly great film this could have been, thinly obscured by the good film it actually is.
Following her new short film collaboration with director Pedro Almodovar, Tilda Swinton returns to the festival via a restoration of one of her first films. Made in 1987, Friendship’s Death was the only solo feature of noted film theorist Peter Wollen, best known for his collaborations with the celebrated Laura Mulvey. The film is set in Amman, Jordan during the so called “Black September” of 1970, when the regional unrest reached a particular peak. The film begins with the most iconic image of the events, the demolition of hijacked planes. As the opening narration describes: “an image with all the meaning drained out of it, completely oblique, like a curtain drawn between us and history”. It’s an attention-grabbing image, but one that tells us nothing about the conflicts taking place.
This narration, and its ironic, jaded tone, come from Sullivan, a journalist (Bill Paterson) staying in Amman, covering the hostilities, who there encounters Friendship (Tilda Swinton), a strange woman who confides that she is actually a machine, sent as an envoy by extra-terrestrials to persuade humanity to cease the violent destruction of the Earth and each other. From this rather odd premise, reminiscent of The Day the Earth Stood Still or The Man Who Fell to Earth, the film develops a captivating two-hander, as the initially sceptical but game Sullivan and Friendship discuss her mission and her kind, whilst holed up in their hotel.
The film is dense with tantalising details, like the disused printing press Sullivan is idly operating when first introduced, but it is anything but oblique itself, anchored by two sterling and enchanting performances from Paterson and Swinton. Their dialogue, playing out over a series of short scenes, as a confrontation between the idealistic outsider and the cynical native, is frequently poignant, incisive and profound, whilst being charmingly human and endearingly funny. Scenes like Swinton’s affectionate ode to the precious beauty of a typewriter are bursting with warmth and sincerity. As a result, despite the historical background, exploring the middle east conflict both in itself, and as a microcosm for the human condition, Friendship’s Death is as readily accessible as it is rewarding.
“For all lovers and rockers”
Perhaps the inarguable most valuable player of this year’s festival has been Steve McQueen, whose films in the Small Axe series not only bracketed the festival but delivered two of its most resounding successes. Mangrove was a fierce and impassioned tale of the fight against injustice, while his follow up Lover’s Rock takes a more defiantly jubilant approach. All but fully rejecting the incendiary tone of the earlier work, Lovers Rock instead takes viewers on an unashamedly nostalgic ride back to a reggae blues house party in the early 1980s.
Coming off the back of a taut courtroom drama recounting the trial of the Mangrove Nine, a film where the upshot of the night’s events is that a young woman named Martha meets a nice young man, may seem lightweight, and it is intentionally so. If Mangrove offered glimpses of the importance of community spaces for black, Caribbean people to go and be themselves together, then Lovers Rock is a fully fledged, affectionate paean to them. Unhampered by rigid thematic statements or densely layered subtext, Lovers Rock simply recreates a single, very ordinary night in the life of a thriving young London community.
The film follows an ensemble cast from early evening, as Martha sneaks out of her bedroom to meet her friend, and the DJ sets up his deck in one room of a terraced house, clearing out the sofas and rugs for many oversized speakers, to the following morning as Martha sneaks back in, all aglow with the night’s festivities and romance. The party has its fair share of creepers and gate-crashers, and there are a couple of altercations, but the convivial, playfully heated atmosphere is never shattered, the sexual tensions between characters often as intoxicating or playful as they are uncomfortable.
We do learn a little backstory about a couple of key characters, but most of the films events are presented without context or unnecessary exposition. Racial and religious tensions are present, with the film’s only oblique symbol being an elderly man on the bus carrying a white cross, but these remain part of the background tapestry of daily life.
Despite the simplicity of its narrative, this in itself is taken to extremes which could be considered bold. In one particularly brave moment, the party in full swing, the music drops out and the entire room gives a full a-Capella performance of Janet Key’s “Silly Games”. It’s one of many moments which unfold purely on the level of music and dance, one could watch the film in a second language without subtitles and follow all but a couple of scenes perfectly, still appreciating the full effect. It’s the sheer density and richness of ambience that the film relishes in as director McQueen envelops the viewer in a time and place and a community fondly remembered.