After delivering a stifled and stoic romance with God’s Own Country, Francis Lee returns with a film that is largely similar to his previous effort. Ammonite is a new closeted duet mired in harsh natural elements and punctuated with hungered sexual catharsis., and centered on a protagonist of few words. Again, Lee makes an unfeeling physical world to embody the limitations faced by gay people in a straight world; here it’s all crashing waves, frozen stone, and shaly mud. But Ammonite takes us back nearly two hundred years, offering a fictionalized account of paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a love affair with the married Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).
Charlotte arrives to Mary’s southern shore along with her husband Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a well-off fossil enthusiast intent on witnessing Mary’s practice in action. The Murchison’s unwanted, interrupting presence becomes an extended stay, as Charlotte falls ill under the weight of trauma and the soggy shore. With Roderick away, the two women develop a relationship that sheds their respective protective emotional barriers, leading to a passionate affair that finds the typically closed-off Mary in uncharted vulnerable emotional terrain.
Lee maintains a confident approach with material recognizable both in his filmography and in queer cinema. Like God’s Own Country before it, the filmmaker plops us into a physical experience with Ammonite, less exhaustive than it is already hardened by labor and the topography of its setting. It opens with the sound of water, a hint of grunts; it ends with the preserved fruits of Mary’s hardship, her art triumphant and unanonymous. This film is nevertheless more compelling than Lee’s last, with the environment reflecting and adding complexity to the characters’ psyche rather than masking them.
What makes Ammonite register in satisfying ways are its flintier textures – the reservedness of its feeling, the unshowiness of its period detail, the soberness of its resolution. Mary doesn’t so much thaw at the breathlessness of romance; instead, she self-actualizes, becoming more affirmed in her needs and desires, even if those things don’t bolster the needs of an onscreen love story. Ammonite is likely to frustrate some viewers for not giving them exactly the experience they want, but Lee is filling this familiar framework with complex, atypical elements.
This does and doesn’t work for the central pair. Winslet and Ronan are a slightly odd match, two remarkably skilled performers whose onscreen chemistry can’t quite catch the spark inherent to making a compelling screen romance. Some of this is the material, given it is two women with very different headspaces and experiences of the world. Indeed, that divide provides one of Ammonite’s more uncommon emotional facets: the anguish of loving someone who wants different things from the world, who is willing to make compromises that you are not. And yet, something is still missing from their union that makes us believe it’s worth all this hand wringing. Or maybe the chemistry is too effortful for how Mary and Charlotte sort of stumble into each other.
Ronan particularly is burdened with the less interesting character to play, or at least one that doesn’t ask for the type of emotional complexity that she’s developed into as an actress. She’s not exactly miscast, but she does feel boxed-in, unable to flourish in the ways that have defined her best work. The actress has had this performance before, but from directors and scripts that have demanded more from her.
Winslet, on the other hand, is returned to the kind of rich character material that we seldom get to watch her wander in the past decade. Her Mary is a staunch introvert without time for flowery conversation, curmudgeonly tending her fossil tourist shop with her mother (returning Lee player Gemma Jones) and working the local stone cliffs in solitude. Charlotte isn’t her first female partner, as some former romantic connection is hinted at in Fiona Shaw’s prim garden matron Elizabeth Philpot. In the film’s early stages, Winslet is as unyielding to the audience, somewhat boldly not letting us in and not relying on flashier choices a less assured performer might take so that we notice how hard they are working. That resolve doesn’t waver throughout as the star reveals Mary’s verbose frustration and longing, making Ammonite a solid case for how compelling of a natural screen presence she has always been without any of the brass of her latest performances.
Ammonite recontextualizes female intimacy and affection within period film by providing us with a unique protagonist, and also a romantic storyline that doesn’t compromise individuality. If this keeps the film on a lower emotional register throughout, it nevertheless is complicated in its intricacies and rebuttal of broader genre standards. Duller costume dramas simply lack the layers this one has to chisel away, even if they take easier paths to scaling emotional heights. Just accept something more academic than rapturous.