It’s always rewarding whenever you get two accomplished actresses in the same film together, especially when the are from two from different generations. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are paired together for the first time in “Ammonite,” written and directed by Francis Lee in his sophomore outing follow-up to his debut feature “God’s Own Country.”
An original screenplay based on historical people on non-historical events, Winslet plays British paleontologist Marry Anning who falls for a depressed married woman, Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) in a Victorian era and patriarchal society. Unfortunately, what begins as an austere and elegant character study of the shifting relationship between two lonely and repressed woman gradually becomes a passionate, yet dry melodrama, ending up like a familiar lesbian period-movie dramas that doesn’t quite break any new ground the way Celina Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” or Yorgos Lanthimo’s “The Favourite” did. Still “Ammonite” is so exquisitely made and greatly acted that its easy to forgive many of its flaws.
With a running time close to 120 mins, the film is well acted, but always undermined by some inconsistencies while the pacing never fully engages it’s full dramatic potential. With the last 40 minutes or so being the most involving, “Ammonite” could have been a far more engaging and resonant love saga. But while flawed with some fires, Lee is able to bring in a the story with discipline, elegance, and taste, Lee loses dramatic momentum after the 60 minute mark, and yet is able to recapture some radicance in the third act, which includes a very memorable and fearless love scene between Winslet and Ronan.
There is strong reservations to made with Lee merging fiction with history, while there is no historical evidence of Marry Aning ever being gay, though at the very least, he coaxed a restrained work that never derails into histrionics or lazy melodrama. Lee also molded strong, Oscar-caliber performances from his two leads, Winslet and Ronan deliver towering performances that will be certainly be placed into this year’s scarce, post-COVID Oscar race.
“Ammonite” is a muted tale whose apparent issue seems to be a character study between two women caught up in a patriarchal era, but then transitions into something else, an anatomy of female empowerment, desire, and of course forbidden love. As the title suggests, the surface plot concerns paleontology and the Jurassic fossil beds are used as a metaphor throughout the story. Mary (Winslet), a middle-age paleontologist, works the shores of England trying to find fossil beds in ocean cliffs.
Mary isn’t given much status for his scientific research and discoveries due not being married, upper class, and being female. Mary Anning is celebrated today for her work, tragically, like most artists and brilliant minds she wasn’t later renowned until after her passing. Mary lives in a decayed house with her mother (Gemma Jones), in which she sells her fossils to tourists. Mary’s life takes an unexpected turn once a geologist and admirer of Mary’s work, Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle) along with his wife, Charlotte (Ronan) enter the narrative. Roderick ends up persuading Mary to watch over Charlotte while he goes off and does his own scientific research, in which Mary reluctantly agrees to a form of monetary payment all in Roderick’s hopes that the ravishing locales and fresh sea air can heal Charlotte out of her “melancholia” form of depression.
Roderick is very much out for himself with his agenda, and Charlotte is clearly depressed from being confined to an unwanted marriage, but Mary agrees to the task. Once Roderick sets off for his own expedition, Mary ends up lifting Mary’s spirits back. The sheer fact that Roderick is now out of the picture, the two women end up forming a bond and a friendship that ends up elevating both Charlotte and Mary out of their own emotional turmoil. Their friendship ends up blossoming into a deep and intimate relationship, in which both women are able to open up to one another about how they feel, along with a psychical attraction that is inescapable for them both.
Blessedly, “Ammonite” is a both a character study that praises mature, wise, and fragmented woman, and its also a complex lesbian love story that feels very familiar. What’s admirable about this film is that it does not over emphasize or explain how or why these women fall for each other–both women are lonely, repressed, and trapped in the confines of a patriarchal society. It’s isolation of their limited powers in how they can control their own reality. While both women are not alone in their positions; they are both forced to confront the unpleasant truth of their own desires which liberate themselves in who they really are, and both women find liberation and a pursuit of happiness that feels all too out of reach.
While the film is at times a dry and gloomy study about female loneliness and friendship, it’s a layered psychological study that wins you over well after it’s final image where you find yourself warming up to these characters. It’s a tribute to unspoken longing and desire that despite the film’s shortcomings, “Ammonite” manages to say something that resonates about female friendship, depression, and insecurity.