Ammonite is a painstakingly well crafted, slow period drama about repressed female sexuality, stoicism, devotion to a calling and the bitter acceptance of the limitations of society.
It’s held together by an impeccable, minimalist, almost wordless, central performance by Kate Winslet as the palaeontologist Mary Anning, who is initially shown as hard, craggy and cold as the freezing sea water is in Lyme Regis where she has chosen to live and work.
Winslet is almost certainly looking to be nominated during awards season for this brittle, unglamorous performance. There is something reminiscent of her Oscar-winning role in The Reader here.
Mary Anning wears trousers under her gown, pees on the beach and barely communicates with her mother who is quietly aware of her daughter’s unspoken needs. She is approached by a wealthy scientist who admires her work and eventually pays her to walk out with his wife, who is suffering from mild melancholia, while he’s out of town.
Cue Anning opening up to a love that dare not speak its name.
To refer to the craftsmanship of this film is not to denigrate it. Nor is the term meant in a pejorative way. It’s simply that the craftsmanship is very much on display in this hard to love film, often at the expense of the passion, emotion and feeling. Director Francis Lee gives us many contrasts; the austere, Spartan existence of Mary versus the pampered luxury in which Mary‘s object of interest, Charlotte Mercherson (Saoirse Ronan), lives with her largely absent (both physically and emotionally) husband. The turmoil and longing inside Mary versus her closed off, gruff to the point of rudeness exterior. But the film is so busy setting up these contrasts and showing us the small acts of Mary’s enclosed life that it’s hard to become involved in it or care for her happiness.
Ammonite is the sort of festival film that needs critical acclaim to push it forward towards awards/commercial success. The gushing from some critics has been as predictable as the plot of the film. Francis Lee carries a lot of goodwill from his previous film God’s own country. But would the same film have had acclaim if the central romance had been a heterosexual one? There are those who will applaud the explicit lesbian scenes simply because it is two women having sex. Winslet and Ronan certainly go for it, hammer and tongue, as it were. No doubt they didn’t want to be accused of not going the distance. But there’s simply no chemistry between them. The supposed love between them is jarringly unconvincing.
Ammonite is a film clearly made with tender loving care. It is impeccably acted by the small cast and particularly Winslet in the leading role and Ronan as her supporting lady. But it’s a curiously cold, uninvolving, slight story that never really catches fire.