AMMONITE Review

While Lyme Regis, a coastal town in West Dorset that lies in Lyme Bay on the English Channel, may very well be a beautiful place to visit and/or live Director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) has made it seem as if it is anything but in his second feature film, Ammonite. It’s not only the location, but it's as if everything in Lee’s film was designed to match the color palette and tone of the fossils our main character, acclaimed self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), found in the cliffs along the Channel in Southwest England: grey and dead. From the furniture and fixtures inside Mary’s shop she now supports herself and her ailing mother with to the weather that constantly seems to be sweeping up on shore. Ammonite is grey, cold, and dreary to a fault. It’s almost as if Lee was so hell bent on having the audience mentally inhabit the mind of Anning that he determined it best to have the pacing, aesthetic, and attitude mirror that of Anning’s daily routine which is to say it's all exceptionally tedious. Tedious that is, until the narrative finds it surprisingly convenient to usher in an actual plot that couldn’t feel less natural or organic to the aforementioned tone set thus far. Strangely convenient in that the type of story this film wants to tell is abundantly clear and thus everything that happens seems to cater to this very particular set of circumstances; the problem being that as such developments unravel it becomes clear the depths of the core relationship won’t generate a strong enough investment to make such conveniences forgivable. It would almost be easier to dismiss the film as pure Oscar bait had it more scenes featuring characters explicitly yelling at one another about their forbidden love, but Lee’s intentions are more honorable than this. Though I've yet to see the filmmaker's debut feature that put him on the map from 2017 it would it would seem Lee was very much interested in making a similarly compelling if not subdued drama for his follow-up. Still, outside a single night of passion, Ammonite remains a somber and sometimes even dull experience that never fully lands the complicated and conflicted heart at the root of the dynamic the film seeks to establish and explore.

The days of her famed discoveries behind her, Anning now hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists. One such tourist, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European geological tour with his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Charlotte is recuperating from a personal tragedy, but her husband seems insensitive to the amount of time it's taking her to deal with as much as he doles out thoughtful and delicate gems such as, "It’s not the right time to make another baby!" and "I want my bright, funny, clever wife back!" Frustrated with Charlotte's "needs" and hopeful to shadow Anning in her day to day, Roderick offers to compensate the paleontologist for her time and troubles should he be afforded the opportunity to see her work. Winslet's Anning agrees - albeit begrudgingly - as she is the type of person who appreciates a routine and is hesitant to any change should it threaten the quiet contentedness of her existence; thus the reason she likely finds peace and satisfaction in digging up the past: there’s opportunity for discovery, but little chance of altering her own life. In the brief time Murchison spends with Anning he seems more intent on finding the right time to ask her further favor than he does observe her technique, but as a result of his insistence and Anning being unable to refuse further, reliable employment Charlotte is entrusted to Anning's care for the remainder of her husband's scheduled tour. Murchinson seems to hope that with Charlotte accompanying Anning on her daily expeditions that it might inspire a renowned brightness in Charlotte, but this really just feels like an excuse for her husband to not have to deal the grief Charlotte continues to carry.

Marry Anning (Kate Winslet) is paleontologist in the 1840s working along the Southern English Coastline.
© See-Saw Films  

If Murchinson possessed the slightest bit of sympathy or compassion he might glean that Mary Anning is an individual as lonely and isolated as his wife, but there is little regard for the "feelings" of these women in 1840s England and thus they are essentially left alone to fend for themselves. Relentlessly passionate about her work, Anning has as little time to deal with Charlotte's dispirited state as Murchinson. Charlotte, on the other hand, is a woman completely defeated. While Anning is set in her ways and resistant to any type of interference in the life she's built Charlotte doesn’t care to live a life any further. Charlotte does little more than lay in bed all day and furthermore, doesn’t care what others think of her or who she offends with the expression of her frustrations. Needless to say, the two women clash given their shared affinity for defiance. That being said, it’s genuinely difficult to see how - upon the first interaction between the two of them - that any common ground might be found never mind a relationship formed. Therefore, it would be to the film’s credit if it made us believe in their bond in the slightest. Still, despite their differences, Mary and Charlotte discover they can offer one another what they've both been searching for which is, in the broadest sense, company while more specifically being something akin to companionship. This glimmer of a shared loneliness is the beginning of a passionate and all-consuming love affair that certainly defies all social bounds of the time and naturally alters the course of both of these women's lives.

Due to the tenderness each of these women seek to be shown and the simple ask of being listened to and understood Lee makes it difficult for viewers to not want to naturally sympathize with his characters, but it is in the building and melding of these social spheres and personalities that the film can't quite successfully execute the closing of the chasm it has set-up between our lovers. It’s nearly forty-five minutes into the film before any real sign of life from Charlotte is detected and by default, within Ronan’s performance as well. It is shortly after this that any sign of actual compassion or emotion from Winslet’s character is shown as well. It is from this point on - with only seventy-five minutes remaining - that Lee must successfully show the honeymoon phase of a relationship before beginning to evolve it further. Funnily enough, due to the fact both characters have remained so guarded up until this point in the story we, as viewers, find ourselves yearning to know more about the women as individuals rather than who they are or what they embody as a couple. Mary and Charlotte's love affair is largely not able to be seen as much more than that given the time period and thus this narrative thread is taken with less sustainability (as unfortunate as that is) than a portrait of Anning might have been with her interest in women being only another mysterious facet in the reality of who Mary Anning truly was. As Lee has made the love story the central focus though, the film becomes a repetitive endeavor that first begs the question of if there is anything more to it than Charlotte being depressed and Mary being overly serious rather than exploring if Anning ever shared any of the pain Charlotte is presently experiencing or if there was a life for Anning prior to throwing herself into her work and caring for her sick mother. Even as the film moves into its second hour with repeated scenes of Winslet and Ronan making love with one another we never buy into or are invested in the relationship as anything more than a pain or stress reliever for the two of them. Dustin O'Halloran and Volker Bertelmann's score is largely as melancholy as the film itself, but there are at least hints of emotion in the music that the passion on screen simply isn't able to replicate.  

Mary falls into an unexpected relationship with Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) after agreeing to care for her while her husband is away.
© See-Saw Films

Ammonite
is a profoundly quiet film, not one that resonates in the way it’s meant to entertain or serve as a piece of art that inspires repeat viewings, but rather it feels more like an under-seen pearl in Winslet's filmography that she'll be happy to reference one day; a small, but meaningful notch in a consistently bold career. To speak to Winslet’s performance though, is to zero in on Anning’s arc of beginning at ground zero when it comes to emotional availability and building to a moment where we can feel her yearning for something she wouldn’t dare admit or share with anyone else - including herself. As it pertains to Ronan we have become accustomed to seeing the young actress in personable, outgoing roles as of late in films like Lady Bird and Little Women, but recalling the likes of Brooklyn or even Atonement allows the knowledge that Ronan can lend the more introverted Charlotte the capability to contain more of the character's emotion within and express it solely through body language and facial expressions rather than the general attitude the character expresses. Charlotte's mentality does begin to alter and shift and her disposition lighten as her relationship with Anning becomes more fulfilling (with her wardrobe following suit), but as quickly as the relationship begins it feels it has come to an end. Restrained in every way and as tightly wound as the corsets Ronan's Charlotte sports, Ammonite becomes as frustrating for its audience as the state of the world is for the lovers at the center of the story. Such frustration is only elevated to disappointment given the clear wealth of talent and potential working on a project that clearly wants to pull viewers in with the most personal and human of experiences only to result in a distant and emotionally vacant one.  

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