New Films from England and Romania

At The Moies: A Sensual Period Piece and a Searing Contemporary Documentary

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Saoirse Ronan (left) and Kate Winslet discover each other in the film “Ammonite.” Photo: Claire Timmons, courtesy NEON films.

Ammonite
It might seem like slim pickings to make a movie drama out of the limited, but productive, life of a woman obsessed since youth with collecting fossils off a harsh English coast, but we now have it with “Ammonite,” the saga of the18th C. self-taught fossil hunter, Mary Anning (d. 1847). Starring Kate Winslet as Mary,  the film was written and directed by Yorkshireman Francis Lee. But rather than just recounting the scientific drudgery of “a woman who sells seashells by the sea shore,” Lee relates the more compelling story of a furtive lesbian encounter on the rock-bound swells of Dorset (the film is rated “R” and runs 117 minutes).

Mary lives a repetitive, barren life in a grim stone house in the sea-side town of Lyme Regis with her widowed mother Molly (Gemma Jones), where they make a meager living selling sea trinkets to tourists. With lights low and clothing thick, their lives are shrouded in hues of dusty grays and dank blues, and poor mother, mildly addled, focuses slavishly on polishing eight ceramic figures, the number of children she has lost.

Into their lives comes a fossil enthusiast, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his proper but ailing wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Once they’ve settled in, the husband asks for a favor from Mary: he must go on a scientific trip, but could the Annings (especially Mary) keep Charlotte entertained with life by the sea so she can get out of her stupor? This means going shelling with Mary to pass the time.

Their relationship is rocky to start: Mary has no time for coddling this woeful woman and Charlotte is put off by Mary’s rough curtness. With time (the film does this quite gradually) Mary notices a spark in Charlotte, while the latter leaves her primness behind, gets muddy on the beach, and admires Mary’s sense of purpose.  An accident leaves Charlotte abed, and Mary, perforce, becomes her caregiver, pushing the relationship along.

Please note: while there was a real Mary and a real Charlotte—they were close friends–director Lee has totally confected the love affair. This is one of those movies, usually tagged as “Based on a true story,” which veers wildly into amatory fiction to enliven a turgid environment with sensuous punch. Also to note: while the development of the affair is mostly in furtive, modest steps, there is one erotic scene that more than earns the film’s “R” rating.

“Ammonite” (a coiled, chambered fossil shell from the Cretaceous period) is a studied two-hander for Ronan and Winslet,  and they acquit themselves well.  The young Irishwoman’s transition is convincing; a young city lady warming to a woman of sturdy competence and strength.  She comes to shine just as her early pallor transforms into roseate cheeks. You can see why Mary becomes smitten.  Meanwhile, Winslet also brightens, if more slowly, as she encounters sentiments she has never felt before. This is the kind of role in which Winslet—head down, hair in a tight bun, eyes forlorn–excels: a wary, suppressed woman discovering new human terrain. She is like one of her fossils, which, when cracked open, reveals a hidden, primordial beauty.

“Ammonite” may sound grim, like a naturalistic novel by Thomas Hardy, who chronicled this same Dorset coast, but it contains a glimmer of hope.

Journalists Mirela Neag (left) and Catalin Tolontan appear in “Collective,” an Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Collective
This documentary about ingrained corruption in contemporary Romania is a wonder: a meticulously crafted landmark of investigative journalism, done in the spirit of the great 2015 film “Spotlight,” except it is real (the film is not rated and runs 109 mins).

The title (“Colectiv” in Romanian) comes from the name of an underground nightclub in Bucharest, that, in October 2015, burned to the ground in a fire, killing 25 patrons and leaving 180 wounded.  As if the fire deaths were not bad enough, 37 of the burn victims died of infections in the aftermath in city hospitals, causing a scandal and national protests against a sketchy drug supplier (Hexi Pharma) and a corrupt regime. By early 2016, director Alexander Nauau and his crew began covering the wide-ranging scandal and the government’s response, tracing the hospital deaths to diluted disinfectants (watered down by 90 percent) from Hexi Pharma to treat burn victims.

The scandal keeps expanding, led by a crusading journalist Catalin Tolotan, a Romanian-German reporter from the “Sports Gazette” newspaper, who leads a team to root out the truth through persistent inquiry, street smarts, and shoe leather. The paper’s reporters, with the help of betrayed whistle blowers, reveal the chemical company’s nefariousness,  harass government spokesmen, find dirty money used as payouts, and do dogged research to parcel out the story over many months. Their pressure is enough to topple a government, leading to calls for reform and a new election.

While the journalistic story is fascinating (and repellent), equally telling is the appearance of another truth-teller, a new interim Minister of Health (Vlad Voiculescu) who comes from Vienna with credentials in patients’ rights cases. His transparency is stunning, and he allows the Gazette team into his confidence, allowing them to film his staff meetings and sit in on whistle blowers’ testimony as he works to put together a case for prosecution. This is the kind of backstory to corruption that is rarely seen in cinema.

The film outlines in great detail the tenacious labor of Nauau (his own cinematographer) and his collaborators: the reporters filmed steadily from early 2016 to mid-2017, they took another year-and-one-half to edit and polish the documentary.

The style may remind fans of the works of the legendary Frederick Wiseman: no interviews, no voice over explaining things, no suggestive music track. Just the bald presence of the all-seeing camera whose images are precisely cut to slowly reveal the shame of a society.  “Collective” showcases a number of fascinating characters, none more striking than Tedy Ursuleani, a survivor of the fire left with harrowing burns. Posing in dramatic couture outfits while still showing her wounds, she embraces her shattered self as a symbol of the Collective horror.

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.