- Written and directed by Francis Lee
- Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan and Fiona Shaw
- Classification: R; 120 minutes
Francis Lee’s romantic drama Ammonite walked into the fall film season the cinematic equivalent of a COVID-19 vaccine. After months of delayed releases and disappointing digital-only titles, here was the promised feature-film salvation that audiences and critics had been waiting and hoping for: a real-deal prestige drama starring two of today’s most talented performers, pledged for actual theatrical release, and ready to gobble up all the attention and, of course, all the Oscars.
It was only once the film was actually screened, first at the Toronto International Film Festival, and then lower-tier fests like London and Chicago, that Ammonite’s salve-for-cinephiles narrative got tricky. (There is probably a lesson in here for those who are jumping up and down for joy regarding Pfizer’s science-by-press release news this Monday.)
Don’t mistake this early cynicism for complete derision: Ammonite is, mostly, an impressive thing. Very loosely adapting the story of Mary Anning, a British paleontologist whose work shaped our understanding of prehistoric life, Lee has produced an engaged and carefully considered study in loneliness, ambition and the grossly destructive power of the patriarchy. But given that Lee has also set out to film a romance, Ammonite is as far from the qualities of passion and yearning as Anning’s fossils are from the Jurassic era.
The film opens on the 1840s Southern English coastline, where the self-taught Mary (Kate Winslet) ekes out a living by selling rinky-dink fossils to tourists, with her most famous discoveries stripped of her name in London museums. Saddled with caring for her cranky widowed mother (Gemma Jones) and with no friends to speak of, Mary seems uniquely able to relate to the relics she finds on the sands of Lyme Regis: She is a woman out of time, forgotten and unloved. But then, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) walks into Mary’s life, in the company of her dour and dire husband Roderick (James McArdle), and the two women strike a business arrangement, then a friendship, then something more.
Most of the discussion around Ammonite will and should revolve around Winslet’s performance. As usual, the actress is remarkable, bringing a difficult, hard-to-parse character like Mary to life in a thousand tiny little ways. There is one dialogue-free scene in particular – you’ll know it when it happens – that offers the actor an immense challenge: to convey jealousy, love, self-loathing and pure, unfiltered anxiety in one fell swoop. She meets the demands with ease, delivering the performance of a lifetime, were Winslet’s career not already chock-full of such feats.
Ronan, though, is not nearly as memorable – mostly because her character is given hardly more thought by Lee than this very sentence. While Charlotte, too, is a woman trapped by societal circumstances beyond her control, Lee rarely gives her the space that he affords to Mary in working through the confines of her reality. Charlotte arrives like a gift to Mary from the gods, and though Lee’s film offers clear reasons for why Mary should fall for her, there is too little insight from Charlotte’s vantage point, rendering her character a narrative and emotional convenience.
Which is why when Mary and Charlotte’s first big sex scene arrives – a moment destined to become a meme unto itself – its explosive energy feels undercut by a lack of genuine connection between the two women. Both performers are throwing the entirety of themselves into Lee’s world, but only one is offered much of anything to grab hold of.
When the Academy Awards do happen, though – if they happen – expect and demand that Winslet will be recognized. Until then, I’m sure she’s also busy helping develop that coronavirus vaccine.
Ammonite opens Nov. 13 in select Canadian theatres, dependent on local health restrictions
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