Writer/director Francis Lee follows up his acclaimed debut, God’s Own Country, with Ammonite, the latest entry in the “sullen, sapphic lovers convalescing by the sea” canon.
Kate Winslet stars as Mary Anning, a cagey, formerly celebrated paleontologist in 19th century England who’s been sidelined into an unglamorous life of peddling seashell-encrusted trinkets to tourists to keep herself and her ailing mother afloat. When Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, Mary Queen of Scots), a fellow scientist and wealthy admirer of her work, walks into her shop and asks to shadow her seaside excavations for a “premium,” Mary grudgingly accepts and, in turn, meets the woman who will change her life … sort of.
Even though Roderick’s wordless, withering wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), is barely within view, it becomes clear that Mary is far more taken with the young woman than her male admirer. After a fossil-hunting outing in which he comes off like a gnat that Mary would like to swat, Roderick suggests that Charlotte stay with Mary while he tends to business in London. Blanketed from head to toe in black and mourning the loss of her child, Charlotte is suffering from “mild melancholia” and, according to her husband, has become a ghost of her former “bright, funny, clever” self. As such, she’s been prescribed rest and sea air — a remedy Roderick deems Mary fit to dole out in his absence.
Building on the period convention of “paid caretaker who becomes a friend and subsequent secret lover,” Ammonite aims to tell the forbidden love story of two tragically neglected women. Led by the star power of Winslet and Ronan, an exquisitely melancholy score from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, and gorgeously muted cinematography from Stephane Fontaine, Ammonite seemingly possesses all the right elements to solidify itself as a remarkable addition to the genre.
However, there’s something slightly amiss — Lee’s tightly coiled, overly withdrawn script? The slightly mismatched chemistry between the two leads? The heavy, somber tone that rarely lightens up? — that limits its potential and feels too impenetrable to enjoy. With a love story steeped in sad, fireside poetry, secretive bedside sketching and cathartic sea bathing, I was fully prepared to immerse myself. Instead, character motivations remain clouded, and the players fail to establish a genuinely intimate connection (beyond a surprisingly hurried and intense physical relationship), leaving me hard-pressed to buy into the “life-changing romance” ethos that Lee assumes his film possesses.
Still, it’s important to note that the attraction between Winslet and Ronan isn’t completely charmless. The stolen glances, exposed necklines and sexual tension of corset-lacing do much to establish an air of unspoken sensuality between them. Though their characters’ relationship may not be totally believable, thanks in large part to their age difference and significant class disparity, both actresses individually deliver and serve as the film’s saving grace.
In particular, Winslet’s silently simmering disposition and raw physicality combine to create an unexpectedly fascinating portrait of a woman who’s been all but forgotten. As Mary climbs up the slippery sea rocks, covered in mud, desperately trying to crack open a valuable fossil, Winslet displays the harsh realities of her character in a way that feels weighty and worthwhile. Her work is largely insular yet simultaneously stirring, and as Mary recoils from affection and hardens herself like one of her precious fossils, viewers empathize with the agonizing loneliness that plagues her.
Every bit Winslet’s equal, Ronan’s thoughtful portrayal of Charlotte is unlike anything we’ve seen from her thus far. She lends a vulnerability to her character that feels almost childlike in its naivety — it’s as if Charlotte has been waiting all along for Mary to free her from her bell jar and unlock her true identity. In this way, Ronan’s every move feels intentional and important but not too neat to come off as calculating. Once she’s allowed to open up and harness the power of Charlotte’s inner truth, she absolutely radiates on screen.
Additionally, it doesn’t help that Ammonite has much in common with Céline Sciamma’s far superior 2019 French melodrama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Though comparison is often the thief of joy, it’s next to impossible not to measure the two films against one another, as they’re strikingly similar in theme, setting and central plot. Unfortunately, the hypnotic on-screen electricity and unwaveringly romantic tone of Portrait is altogether missing here. Lee’s attempt to establish a sympathetic lesbian love story feels too cold and detached to connect with, and never truly comes alive. While the pacing in the film’s first half aims to slowly unfurl like the love between its two heroines and the titular fossils alike, it still feels sluggish and a tad monotonous.
Though the film cleverly uses visuals of ammonite as a thinly veiled mirror of the women’s blossoming romance — and, by extension, their hidden inner lives — I found myself longing for a much deeper excavation. And even with the script’s prolonged exposure to Mary’s tough exterior — a focus that largely overshadows the film’s love story — viewers never really get the dose of affection and intimacy that the film desperately needs. Still, even with its shortcomings, Ammonite is an extraordinarily well-made film with a pair of exceptional lead performances that’s worth the price of admission.
Available to rent starting Dec. 4 via Amazon Video, iTunes and other streaming services