It becomes an inevitable talking point when Ammonite shares similarities with Céline Sciamma’s exquisite drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Both films are slow-burn tales of femininity and lesbian love affairs in a patriarchal society. Both films relish their time period setting, where its environment is filled with intimacy and immersion in its minimalist sound design. And both films have the unfortunate circumstances of being released so closed together (a year apart for those taking notes) for those comparisons to be made. But if this was a contest, Sciamma’s Portrait wins with ease.
That’s not to say Ammonite is a bad film. There are merits to Francis Lee’s directorial work which separates it from Sciamma’s modern classic. The cold bleakness. The departures of a sanitised reality. The up-close and personal (and occasionally explicit) invasion of space. The ambience of the crashing waves against the shore. The drawn-out silences. The desaturated cinematography by Stéphane Fontaine, all adds to the textual flavour that Lee is aiming for. If Portrait had a lushness and vibrancy in its poetic beauty, Lee – true to his style – makes it absent.
Which is befitting of Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning, the famous 19th century palaeontologist and groundbreaking pioneer of fossil collecting. Lee portrays her as an emotionally repressed woman – cold, blunt, straight to the point in all her exchanges. She lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), but her resourcefulness, dedication and practicality make her independent, rejecting the advances of the world which seemingly is always ready to remind her of her place. It’s evident from its opening scene where the fossils she discovered are re-labelled to remove her name – only to be replaced by the name of the company which are fronted by men. Which makes an expected contrast when Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) arrives at her shop in Lyme Regis. Accompanied by her husband Roderick (James McArdle) – the epitome of privilege and wealth, the young socialite is a subservient wife, with zero autonomy or voice in their relationship.
Written by Francis Lee himself, the script plays up to the ‘opposites attract’ mantra, where chance convenience and circumstances leave Mary and Charlotte to stay together. Charlotte is in a state of mourning and sickness with Mary being assigned as her guardian while Roderick is pulled away on business back in London. And it’s at this point where Lee’s script begins laying down the foundation of their infatuation with stolen glances and Mary’s art drawings of her muse (which brings out the Titanic vibes), coincide with Charlotte developing a keen interest in Mary’s work.
Lee drives home the class divide, where Mary’s working-class heritage leaves her out of place and awkward to Charlotte’s natural gravitas of being brought up in wealth and status. Lee sees this as barriers meant to be broken, giving opportunities where the young women can gradually exchange their talents and perspectives.
Winslet is very much the star performer here; when there’s a deliberate absence of words, the emotion implied comes through in her glances, the quiet looks which appear passive at first, but unravels an underbelly of feelings and loneliness. It’s the depth she brings, which is protective yet equally compelling – the anthesis of what we’ve seen her do before in previous roles. Ronan, as her opposite, plays Charlotte with the free-spirited and innocence of youth, finally able to break free from the conformity. When Winslet’s Mary is seemingly lost for words, those gaps in the silences are filled by Charlotte’s presence.
Yet despite all these engaging elements, somehow Ammonite doesn’t truly connect. Some would argue it’s the aesthetics of being surrounded in the gloom of its environment where audiences need to feel more of its tenderness to believe in Mary and Charlotte’s whirlwind connection. But, for a film that is not a biopic about Mary Anning’s life, (taking creative liberties with her history including her romantic relationships), somehow Ammonite makes her depiction far less interesting than her counterpart. It’s so concerned with the fabled telling of a lesbian love affair while her work (perhaps the most compelling aspects of her history) is relegated as secondary acts. Considering it takes brief moments to remind its audience about how her work is measured in a patriarchal society, where male scientific achievements outweigh female contribution, it misses a grand opportunity to fully engage in it. And when the world is looking for more diverse stories about aspects of our history which have gone untouched and unacknowledged, watching Ammonite made me want to know more about Mary’s influences, and less about what Lee ambitiously wanted to articulate.
It’s not helped that Ammonite’s story drags during its poetic silences, flirting on a balanced threshold between its artistic endeavours and moving the plot along (including its tact-on ending that aims to resolve Mary and Charlotte’s relationship).
But it also becomes painfully aware that Lee’s script just lacks something, that genuine spark amongst the conflict between honouring Mary Anning’s legacy and telling a fulfilling love story. The thematic analogy is there; chipping away (like how Mary unearths her discoveries) at an emotionally distant heart to remind them of beauty in the world, and most importantly, is deserving of that beauty. There’s definite poignancy in that statement. But there’s not enough agency within the script to solidify their reasons for love, feeling more like a shifting mood board of unrequited emotions before they finally cave into their feelings. In a film trying to tick all the right boxes, it leaves its characters on the wayside of development (and that includes some aspects of Charlotte herself) and it’s dialogue a little too ‘on the nose’. But in the end, it fails to reach the emotive heights that it desires to be.
Ammonite is a solid yet unspectacular film by Francis Lee, rescued by some flawless performances by Winslet and Ronan. And despite some commendable efforts, you can’t help but feel there was a better vision of this story, waiting to be unearthed.
AMMONITE screened as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. UK Cinema release date – TBC.