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  • Writer's pictureJim Keller

Ammonite and The Moving Target

This year is shaping up to be one of the more difficult Oscar races to predict. With film studios shuffling dates around, holding films until next year, and some filmmakers racing the clock to finish following a long hiatus – all due to the global pandemic – it is anyone’s guess which films will actually make it in front of critics and audiences, let alone receive the reviews and box office totals that often drive the awards race.

Accordingly, it is only natural that I begin with what we do know. In recent years the eventual Best Picture Oscar winner has premiered at the Telluride Film Festival (September 4-7, 2020) – indeed last year’s winner Parasite bowed even earlier at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Telluride’s films along with those of Venice (September 2-12, 2020), the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) (September 10-19, 2020) and the New York Film Festival (NYFF) (September 25 - October 11, 2020), usually provide most of awards season fodder. But like the studios and filmmakers, this year the festivals are somewhat discombobulated due to the global pandemic:

  • Cannes (May 11-22, 2020) was cancelled but still released its selection

  • Telluride essentially followed suit

  • Venice, TIFF, and NYFF have opted to proceed with a reduced slate of films and in the case of the latter two, with virtual attendance options

This is the backdrop of the 2020 Oscar race and therefore it is uncertain whether critical reception of the festival films will continue to shape the race or if video on demand services, such as Netflix and Amazon, will finally have their day in the sun for mere accessibility.

Either way, if we’re following the traditional awards trajectory, we must start with the festival films.

Ammonite Release date: 11/13/20 Director: Francis Lee Studio: Neon Possible Nominations: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Cinematography The film, set in 1840s England, is inspired by the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and centers on the romantic relationship between Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), a young woman who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. The film premiered at TIFF this past weekend, where Best Actress hopeful Winslet was awarded the Tribute Actor Award. The film also features among this year’s Cannes and Telluride selections. Neon has released a beautiful trailer for the film, which showcases the talent of Winslet and Ronan, and is enough to make any believers in love swoon.

Kate Winslet Winslet has been nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Supporting Actress three times (Sense and Sensibility in 1996, Iris in 2002, and Steve Jobs in 2016) and for Best Actress three times (Titanic in 1998, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2005 and Little Children in 2007). In 2008, she was nominated for Best Actress a fourth time for The Reader and won. For me, this was one of the most dubious wins in Oscar history because it was a clear example of category fraud where Winslet was really a supporting player and not the lead. Besides, Winslet was much stronger in Revolutionary Road that year, a film that enabled her to showcase her full range of talent. Since then, Winslet’s three most prominent films failed to catch on in the award’s race The Dressmaker (2015), The Mountain Between Us, and Wonder Wheel (both 2017). In Ammonite, Winslet’s Anning looks weather-beaten and determined to stay afloat – she is almost ripe for the picking for such a romance to come along and change her life. Yet, she seems to be brooding and is somewhat irritated by the arrival of Murchison.

Judging solely on the trailer, Ronan’s looks like the meatier of the two roles, with Winslet playing the strong silent type. There is little doubt that Winslet will one day win at least a second Oscar, but Oscars tend to go to those who give the bigger performance. Still, Winslet excels in relationship dramas and is probably a safe bet for a nomination.

Saoirse Ronan

Ronan was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 2008 for Atonement at age 13, and three times for Best Actress for Brooklyn (2016), Lady Bird (2018), and this year in Little Women. Curious enough, Ronan has never been favored to win any of the times she had been nominated. But now, she has a career spanning 17 years, with four nominations under her belt, she joins the ranks of other actresses who have yet to be awarded by the Academy for their work – despite having delivered solid performances for several years. Namely, Amy Adams, who has six nominations within 13 years for a 21-year career and Jessica Chastain, who has two nominations in 2 years for a 16-year career. Both actresses also have films in this year's Oscar race: Adams with Hillbilly Elegy and Chastain with The Eyes of Tammy Faye, but Ronan’s role looks to be the supporting role, so she wouldn’t need to square off against the others.

Here, Ronan’s Murchison was put in the care of Anning’s fossil hunter following her personal tragedy. She appears listless in the trailer until she begins to develop a companionship with Anning at which point she seems fascinated by Anning’s work and appears to be the aggressor in the relationship that ensues. It is because of this drastic personality shift that I have pegged Ronan’s as the more substantive of the two performances and therefore the crux of why I feel she has a real chance to not only be nominated, but win the Best Supporting Oscar this year.

Francis Lee

Lee’s only previous film is 2017’s God’s Own Country, another LGBTQ+ effort that was nominated for Outstanding British Film of the Year by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), among a slew of other festivals and critics groups. Lee also wrote the screenplay for both films, making him eligible for the Oscar for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. As I mentioned in the last post, it has been 51 years since a gay director has won (John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy), and it is not often that a director wins on their first time that they are invited to the big show. So, from purely a statistical standpoint, the odds are stacked high against Lee for a Best Director nomination. However, he could certainly feature in the Best Original Screenplay race, which has seen seven LGBTQ+ nominees, two of whom have won – compare that with eight individual LGBTQ+ nominees in the last 20 years in Best Director, where none have won.

But the bigger issue, and one of the main reasons I chose to create this site, is that whereas the Academy often recognizes films that depict lesbian characters or themes with nominations, it does not often give them awards. Films with lesbian characters or themes over the last twenty Academy Award years: 2002 – Mulholland Drive: one nomination, zero wins 2003 – Far From Heaven: four nominations, zero wins; The Hours: eight nominations, one win

(Best Actress: Nicole Kidman) 2004 – Monster: one nomination, one win (Best Actress: Charlize Theron); Thirteen: one nomination, zero wins 2007 – Notes on a Scandal: four nominations, zero wins 2010 – Precious: six nominations, two wins Adapted Screenplay: Geoffrey Fletcher and Supporting Actress: Mo'Nique 2011 – The Kids Are All Right: four nominations, zero wins 2016 – Carol: six nominations, zero wins 2019 – The Favourite: nine nominations, one win (Best Actress: Olivia Colman); Can You Ever Forgive Me?: three nominations, zero wins Following Ammonite’s premiere on Friday evening, tastemakers such as Indiewire and Variety shot out the first word on the film, with the former essentially pummeling it as though it had been waiting all year to snuff out its Oscar chances. Fortunately, the review in Variety was much more positive (and fair). But it’s these moments that can make or break a film, and one would think it deserves more of a chance than the words of a single human being, or handful of them, as the case may be, are willing to give it. Indiewire:

Loving someone doesn’t ensure you will always be able to understand them; Lee and his stars may love these characters, but they never understand them. Neither can we.Variety:In his sophomore directorial effort, he steers an organic and elegant vessel with Winslet and Ronan delivering on multiple fronts…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…Ronan delivers her most mature outing yet, which could assemble a groundswell around the Irish actress who is due for an Oscar win.”

Unfortunately, for now I’ll have to wait until November to see the film, but I will share my thoughts when I see it. For now, the excerpts above prove my point.

#AcademyAwards #Oscars #LGBTQ+ #TIFF20

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