Francis Lee certainly is a very interesting filmmaker. He started off as an actor then moved into writing and directing films just a few years back. Bored with acting he decided that he wanted to tell stories he was interested in. Having never gone to film school and starting at the age of 42 is certainly unusual. Then there is the stories he chooses to tell. They certainly aren’t barn burners or ones which will have people rushing to the movie theatre. That is not to say that he does not make good films. Because he does.
His first feature film was 2017’s God’s Own Country, which starred Josh O’Connor. A quiet film set in rural Yorkshire telling the tale of a young farmer frustrated with his lot in life who begins a sexual relationship with a migrant worker from Romania. It was an understated and raw film which was nothing short of excellent. Unfortunately not many saw the film as it grossed just over $2.5 million worldwide.
That has not changed Lee’s vision of filmmaking at all as his next film also involves long silences, a rural setting and an atypical same sex relationship. While this one is probably not as strong a film as his first, it is still a film which should be seen and appreciated.
This one features two female actresses who are probably amongst the best of their generations. Both respected actresses who began acting at young ages, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan have several Oscar noms under their belt with Winslet having won a Best Actress for her turn in The Reader. Supported by a pair of excellent veteran female actresses in Gemma Jones (who has appeared in both of Lee’s films) and Fiona Shaw this is a master class in acting. Acting, especially in Winslet’s case, without the crutch of much dialogue.
Set in seaside Lime, England in the 1840s, we are introduced to the harsh and poverty infused life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet – Revolutionary Road, Contagion). Since the age of 11, Mary had been working as a fossil hunter. Because she is a woman and poor her discoveries were sold and claimed under men’s names.
Now, as her father died when she was young, Mary and her unwell mother (Gemma Jones – Sense and Sensibility, Bridget Jones’s Diary) live together in a small cottage. Mary spends her time looking for and polishing up small fossils which she and her mom sell to tourists out of their shop.
One day through the door comes the wealthy amateur fossil hunter Roderick Murchison (James McArdle – Mary Queen of Scots, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn, Atonement). As he is going away for weeks and his wife is not well having lost a child recently, Mr. Murchison proposes that he pay Mary to take care of Charlotte.
Though not thrilled, Mary needs the money so she agrees. Charlotte falls ill and Mary has to tend to her. The two grow close. Closer than either would have thought possible.
Once again Kate Winslet gives demonstration to the extent of her talent. It seems to have no limits. A marvelous actress. Here she is playing a character of a type she has not before in her impressive career. With precious little dialogue or even movement she has to convey a wealth of emotions. It is a performance which could earn her another Oscar nomination. Paired with Ronan, the two bravely depict the passionate love affair which grows between the two women.
Visually the film is rather dark and dreary, like Mary’s life, and yet it has its own raw and rugged beauty. Every scene and visual has been thought out by Francis Lee. A cerebral director, he does bring forth emotion in rather demure and quiet fashion. There is nothing showy here though to believe it is not authentic and memorable would be a grotesque error.