TIFF: The actresses dig deep to play a pair of unexpected lovers in the drama, but Lee's script and direction give them little emotion to support the story.
We first meet the work of paleontologist Mary Anning, a giant fossil that was pushed into a museum, brusquely shoved past a working woman, and placed in pride of place among a pack of chattering white men. It's a fitting start for "Ammonite," a movie about the kinds of people who spend their lives exploring the giant ribbed and spiral fossils of the extinct underwater mollusks, and the kinds of people trapped in shells that are they made themselves. In Francis Lee's "Ammonite" these people are one and the same, they take care of fictional rotations for Mary (Kate Winslet) and her geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). The result is a cool, aloof romance between the two women that never catches fire, a film about reticent people that is so buttoned up that it is impenetrable.
It's off to a good start as Lee overlays important observations about his two main characters and the town of Lyme Regis on the coast of the English Channel, a desolate place where they will spend most of their time together. These leading indicators must carry the film and its characters throughout its nearly two-hour runtime, which is getting farther away by the minute. Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography, all of the dark shadows and misty vistas of the sea, reflect that iciness, although the single scene set in full sunlight suggests a more vivid film underneath. It has the effect of breathing fresh air and even the actors seem more alive in it.
During her first meeting with the lonely and biting Mary, Charlotte stays largely out of line. She is in a seemingly cold marriage and suffers from a "mild melancholy" that seems to have arisen after a very real tragedy. She is a dumb thing that still cannot hide her latent curiosity about the world around her. Left behind by her fossil-hunting husband – he is a firm believer in the power of ocean bathing and walks, both of which are easy to come by in Lyme – Charlotte is expected to join Mary's fossil-finding missions as well, and she will eventually sparkle to both the pastime and their prickly host.
What binds people together can be difficult to understand, but Lee and his stars occasionally land in small, crucial moments that almost explain their growing appeal. When Mary asks Charlotte for her opinion (probably a rare opportunity with her bubble-hard husband), Charlotte beams with pleasure. In another scene you can see a look from Mary, how Charlotte goes from laughing loudly to big, violent sobbing, and it starts to split off both seashells. Yet these moments are in short supply and fade far too soon.
Eventually, through a hazy combination of chance, respect, and possibly boredom, Mary and Charlotte are bound together and fall into a secret romance. Although Winslet and Ronan slip into their characters with enthusiasm, Lee's script lets them down. The script is littered with clichés, starting with the “Oh, we only have one bed” scenario, which supports so many romance novels, to providing important character details through feverish sleep and random glances that land on the characters during the revelation moments. These tropes are common in straight stories, and their use in a lesbian romance might be refreshing in its own way, but "Ammonite" doesn't use them for anything new. It's just another way to move a lean story forward.
Inevitably (and not without reason) "Ammonite" is compared to another neon-release: Celine Sciamma's lush "Portrait of a Lady on Fire". The films share material characteristics; Both contemporary pieces set on windswept beaches and strangely empty apartment buildings, they follow a pair of unexpected potential lovers who are thrown together at the request of the people who control their lives. However, their differences are great when it comes to emotional content. While Sciamma's film also dealt with the inner workings of her characters (and not only with their central couple, but also with other important women around them), “Ammonite” cannot arouse such interest after its first act.
That extends to the big love scene of the film, an intentionally detached sequence that unfolds during Mary and Charlotte's most desperate hours together. The actresses reportedly helped choreograph the scene, and while the stars move and touch in believable ways (and certainly not "sexy" porn style), she's nonetheless obsessed with sensitivities that are better prepared for the movies. (To put it less gracefully, it is unfortunate that even among women in charge, Ammonite still seems happy to deliver masculine ideals about how quickly a sex act can get a woman up to par .) Even in their most intimate scene, Mary and Charlotte and their love stay away.
Elsewhere, Lee's reluctance is more successful. The film never provides overt platitudes about how difficult it was to be a 19th century woman who loved other women and how dreams of happily living together are next to impossible. Although Mary's mother occasionally casts the couple's biting looks, the film is in no danger of discovery. It is clear that this romance is not intended for the public to use, and Lee trusts that his audience will understand this with a minimum of information.
The film's secondary cast doesn't get the same benefit. Gemma Jones appears as Mary's mother, Molly, who exists primarily to cough on a register best known as "Foreboding," while Lee's "God 's Own Country" star Alec Secareanu is the new doctor in the City perform that adds shine to a very disinterested Mary All the better to really hammer home that she's not into boys at all. Royal Fiona Shaw and a correspondingly worm-eaten James McArdle do a little better as Mary's former lover and Charlotte's callous husband. Shaw's Elizabeth Philpot might be tasked with delivering a really unnecessary portrayal, but she makes it feel human. And while McArdle's Roderick Murchison is setting an early sign, he's all but disappearing from the movie in the last 90 minutes, all the better to appreciate how completely he's gone from Charlotte's mind.
Many have argued that Mary's sexuality was never confirmed (Charlotte is less of a question mark; she was actually married to Roderick Murchison for over 50 years). We know Mary Anning never married, a historical footnote that has many possible connotations. Large-scale creation of a great romance with Charlotte Murchison is a tricky business: it could be great for Hell; it could rob the real Mary of her own story.
Lee's film does something else too: it just asks for a fact-based account of what we know about Mary Anning. With all of its romantic ideas and tragic bases, "Ammonite" only awakens the desire to learn more about the real Mary Anning and her actual work. A similar concept is rooted in the film's final moments, when Mary and Charlotte grapple with the feeling that neither of them really knows each other. Even Charlotte cannot understand what Mary's work – and the pain that comes with a lack of recognition from the world at large – really means to her. When you love someone, you cannot always understand them. Lee and his stars may love these characters, but they never understand them. Neither can we.
"Ammonite" premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Neon will launch it in theaters on November 13th.