Shells and stone crunching under foot, waves drawing in to and pulling away from the shore, and two women of differing backgrounds finding an unlikely and unexpected companionship in each other; Ammonite, written and directed by Francis Lee pairs Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan together in this ambitious, if slightly lackluster, follow up to his wildly successful 2017 queer romance drama, God’s Own Country.
Set in the beachside heritage town of Lyme Regis, sometime in the mid 1800s, Ammonite centres on real life palaeontologist Mary Anning – played rather endearingly by Kate Winslet – who spends her days walking the shorelines, collecting and cleaning fossils and shells. We don’t know all that much about Mary the historical figure, and Lee uses this to his advantage to turn a more or less unknown woman into a gruff, hardy, queer feminist. It makes for an entertaining character to say the least; while at once shy and reclusive, desperately trying to hide from townsfolk she recognises, Mary also exhibits a roughness when speaking to strangers that would be rather unbecoming of ladies in her time. Some of the best of Mary’s dialogue are the short quips she makes to the town’s doctor or the bright-eyed and bothersome Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) when he imposes on her precious time. But it’s the moments when she doesn’t speak that Winslet is at her best. Every sigh, every glance, every gesture that Winslet makes in place of words gives Mary depth and dimension, making her incredibly engaging, to the point that if this film had only been about Mary and her rocks, it would still be just as interesting.
On an absolute career high, Saoirse Ronan moves away from the loud and confident characters of her recent films, like Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Little Women, to play Roderick Murchison’s wife, Charlotte, a quiet and fragile woman who is abandoned by her husband in Lyme to deal with her mild case of ‘melancholia’. Through her time in Lyme, Charlotte gradually brightens into an engaging, happy, adventurous woman. Once again, Lee took some creative liberties with Charlotte, who was also a real-life scientist specialising in geology. Ronan plays her role gently enough, often making Charlotte seem as meek and ineffectual as her husband would have us believe. She is clearly dealing with something, though what that ‘something’ is, we never quite find out. Charlotte’s stunning, all-black outfits in early scenes would suggest that she is in mourning, most likely for a child, but Lee never feels the need to spell this out for us in a way that is legible. Determined to not be a companion of Mary’s despite being unacquainted with everyone else in Lyme, Charlotte’s idea of self-sufficiency simply leads her back into Mary’s home. Thus begins their re-connection as women, friends, and eventually, lovers.
There are some nice moments in Ammonite between Ronan and Winslet, like stolen glances, hand holding as they attend a soiree, and their first hesitant kiss. The costuming, too, is immaculate and become important characters in their own rights – Mary’s dirty, basic everyday dress personifying her as a salt-of-the-earth type who cares very little for the frills and frivolousness of high society, while Charlotte’s transition from dark mourning clothes to light tones of blue and green embody her reawakening and rediscovery of herself since meeting Mary.
There are, however, plenty more moments that leave Lee’s film lacking. From a somewhat nit-picking perspective, Mary’s body hair seemed too manicured to be era-appropriate, and a close-up shot of her pissing on the rocks serves little purpose beyond reminding the audience that she ‘doesn’t give a shit’ about societal norms (something that was already apparent from her manner of speaking and choice of profession). There is also some kind of tension between Mary and a local woman (played by Fiona Shaw) that goes largely unexplored, with some too-subtle hints occasionally thrown out that their relationship was perhaps romantic or sexual, plus so many scenes between Mary and Charlotte that fail to do the one thing they’re designed for; creating attraction and sexual tension between the leads. Lee attempts weaving a web of jealousy and kinship between these two women, but the end results are two scenes with a rather abrupt mashing of bodies that teeters a little dangerously on the fringe of gratuity.
None of this is to say that Ammonite is a bad film. It will no doubt appeal to audiences who love period dramas and/or its leading cast and to their credit, Winslet and Ronan gave performances that will more than likely have people humming, especially those partial to raunchy movie sex. Ammonite, for all its shortcomings, easily goes into the annals of film history as an important piece of queer representation in art and media. Where Ammonite falls short is in comparison to similar, better executed films like Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, that used the same analogy, albeit with painting instead of petrified rocks, and delivered something considerably more poignant and beautiful.
Had Ammonite been as richly detailed and articulate as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Francis Lee would have hit this sophomore effort out of the park.