Written and Directed by Francis Lee.
Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, and Fiona Shaw.
In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
Though not quite the filmmaker’s sophomore slump, Francis Lee’s (God’s Own Country) second feature doesn’t nearly begin to hit the dramatic strides you’d understandably expect from such a canny pairing of writer-director, cast, and material.
In the 1840s, palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) works alone in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, West Dorset, spending most of her time hunting for fossils which can be sold to passing tourists. Mary’s life changes, however, when she strikes a deal with travelling geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), to look after his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who is suffering with a mental malady. Though Mary initially meets Charlotte with ire, her frosty defenses slowly begin to thaw as a mutual attraction blossoms.
It’s inevitable that Lee’s film will be compared to last year’s ravishing, deeply-felt Portrait of a Lady on Fire until the end of time, this being another coastal-set lesbian romance centered around a specific discipline (albeit geology rather than painting). But beyond the obvious similarities, Ammonite strikes a rather different path to its end goal, touting a spareness which would make Portrait seem resolutely forthcoming by comparison.
Much of Ammonite‘s meaning is unlocked less through dialogue than loaded glances, suggestive body language, and faint physical contact; the touch of a hand on a shoulder, for instance. It’s clear from mere moments into the film that Winslet’s Mary is a downtrodden woman, confined to a life of glorified grunt work, her most celebrated geological discovery made at the mere age of 11 and therefore decades behind her. Worse still, she lives with her cantankerous, ailing mother Molly (Gemma Jones).
Ronan’s Charlotte, meanwhile, is stricken with “melancholia” over an unspecified incident which the audience is left to speculate on – there being a few obvious possibilities – and is prescribed the sea air as a remedy. Whatever the event, Charlotte’s life is largely dictated by the whims of her husband, who even orders her dinner on her unsolicited behalf – fish with no sauce, tragically.
“Women are supposed to care for their sisters,” says Charlotte’s doctor to Mary (played by God’s Own Country star Alec Secăreanu), a rather unsubtle means of underscoring the film’s early focus on women’s place in the world in the mid-19th century. It’s certainly a worthy story primer, but Ammonite becomes far more compelling as the slow-simmering sexual tension between Mary and Charlotte emerges, particularly an awkward night spent sharing a bed, each stone-faced as they attempt to maintain control of their burning desires.
Outside of two sexual trysts, Lee’s depiction of this love story is extremely subtle, perhaps to a fault for some tastes, but in the very least leavened by the expectedly strong efforts of its two stars. Winslet, who wears a pained brow for a solid 80% of the movie, knows the camera loves close-ups of her face and milks it for every drop it’s worth, such that when she eventually does crack a smile in Charlotte’s company, it’s a watershed moment for her character.
Ronan is exemplary as an initially somnambulant young woman brought roaring to vivid life by this fiery love. At first, her delicate porcelain features look like they might crack at any one moment, but over the course of the story her face becomes full with joy and hope for a future with Mary. The constrictions of the material ultimately prevent this from quite being top-shelf work for either actress, but they’re absolutely doing the best with what they’ve got.
In the supporting stakes, James McArdle skirts just left of being a caricature as Charlotte’s hubby Roderick, while Gemma Jones brings some much-needed comic relief as Mary’s bug-eyed, shamelessly coarse mother Molly. Elsewhere Fiona Shaw has a small but memorable role as Mary’s acquaintance Elizabeth Philpot – another real-life figure from the paleontology scene – who it is implied is most likely her former lover.
Ammonite is a film begging for audiences to languish on every stylistic detail, Stéphane Fontaine’s stately lensing capturing the bleak beauty of the Dorset coastline immaculately, while airy sound design allows crashing waves to overwhelm the mix wherever possible. Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann’s musical score is meanwhile shrewdly deployed sparingly, with Lee often letting ominous, quiet scenes sit unimpeded.
Ultimately these constituent elements don’t quite add up to a fully satisfying film, which while perhaps somewhat on purpose nevertheless left me feeling a tad cold. The third act’s slow trundle towards a low-key ridiculous ending sucks much of the vigour out of that stronger first two reels, though in the very least the film avoids indulging the more widely loathed, misery-soaked tropes of queer cinema.
Sumptuous to a point, Lee’s film might ultimately be too demure for its own good, too often leaving one wanting for the red-blooded longing a story such as this desperately needs. Moreover, the addition of A-list actors to Lee’s cachet doesn’t elevate his game as much as you might hope, and overall it’s tough to see this as a progression from his superior debut effort. It does, however, have its own gentle pull.
Ammonite is tenaciously acted by its terrific leads as you’d expect, though Lee’s stark approach prevents the central romance from fully sticking to the ribs.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.