Highly anticipated queer romance “Ammonite” doesn’t quite live up to expectations, despite its technical mastery
With its poster of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan looking wistfully out onto the sea, Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a period romance inspired by the life of English Paleontologist Mary Anning, has certainly set high audience expectations for itself. Although Lee constructs a fictional romance between Anning and her fellow geology enthusiast, Charlotte Murchison, for his film, Ammonite is less about speculating the actual details of Mary’s personal life and more about humanizing this often overlooked pioneer for women in science in a context of connection and intimacy. Although Ammonite more than hits the target with technical mastery and beauty, creating a fictionalized version of Anning whose weathered soul and loneliness bites through the screen, the romance itself lacks the chemistry and nuance that would have taken it to the next level.
In the mid-1800s, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives with her chronically ill mother (Gemma Jones) in a perpetually gray seaside town, running a shabby shop where tourists can buy shells and small fossils. Despite having made discoveries that are housed in the British museum, Anning’s gender and financial status keep her living modestly. An overeager tourist and science enthusiastic, Mr. Murchison (James McArdle), drops in during his travels to learn from Mary and, before departing, decides that it would be best for his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to stay on with Mary for a few weeks as a treatment for her “melancholia” and grief after the loss of a baby. Mary reluctantly agrees to take on the mourning housewife and, over time, opens herself up to the need for companionship, intimacy, and love.
Aesthetically, Ammonite watches like a literature professor’s ideal nineteenth-century maritime poem, bursting with symbolism that is just begging for closer analysis: persistent grays, black crustaceans clattering across a stony beach, crashing waves on cliffs, rain, and of course, fog and mist. Ammonite also sees to all of the specific details of an 1800’s period-romance that have satisfied Jane Austen fans at the cinema for decades, including lengthy shots of the leading ladies playing piano and sewing, exchanged glances of longing during a formal party where social tension keeps our lovers at opposite sides of the room, a character who wanders into the water on a cold day and catches a cold, and so on and so forth.
As we might expect from such a romance, Ammonite’s two lead characters have such opposite experiences and worldviews they seem to inhabit different realities. Mary Anning is aloof, independent, and disillusioned with both her own scientific community and the upper-class world that Charlotte inhabits. Although Mary is a character of few words, Winslet embraces the character with a strong physical presence that speaks volumes about Mary’s emotional state long before she utters her first line. Winslet rises to the challenge of portraying this fictionalized version of Mary with astounding emotional subtlety, slowing breaking down to illustrate Mary’s need for intimacy. Charlotte also begins the story buried deep in an emotional shell, but for much different reasons. As a grieving young woman with only a clueless husband at her side, Charlotte, too, is in desperate need of intimacy. Ronan succeeds in creating a character who is both sympathetic and, at times, annoying, portraying unspeakable grief while also demonstrating the wealth and privilege that make Charlotte so different from Mary.
Despite checking all the right boxes, including two leads who have time and time again proven their mastery on the screen, Ammonite left a bland and forgettable taste in my mouth. Because of the film’s strengths, it took me quite some time to put my finger on what it was about Ammonite that wasn’t working. The problem, in part, is a lack of chemistry between the two lead characters. While Winslet and Ronan’s individual performances are remarkably thorough, Ammonite spends much more time showing us why Mary is in need of human connection and intimacy in general rather than showing us why it is she falls for Charlotte, specifically. In broader terms, Ammonite suffers from a thematic conflict: the film’s role as a romance story is at odds with its goal of humanizing Mary Anning. Ammonite is so strongly driven by Mary’s coming to terms with her loneliness that the romance itself emerges as simply a vehicle for that emotional journey. The course of Mary and Charlotte’s romance is written out for them from the beginning, and there isn’t anything particularly motivating about their chemistry that makes the predictable formula more exciting. Unfortunately, for me, this thematic tension was strong enough that it undermined the film’s technical and aesthetic achievements, leaving me impressed but unsatisfied.
Available on VOD December 4, 2020
"Our embodied spectator, possibly perverse in her fantasies and diverse in her experience, possesses agency...finally, she must now be held accountable for it."
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Cat Mom | Member, North Carolina Film Critics Association | Contributor, Elements of Madness | MA Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago '19 | BA English, Gardner-Webb University '18