Ammonite is a dreary period romance that struggles to find its spark
Maybe spend two hours hunting for fossils on Animal Crossing instead.
Over the years, biopics stuffed with A-list actors who chase the gold for “disappearing” into their respective characters have become a mainstay during awards season. One surefire way to help your entry into the oversaturated subgenre stand out? Pay tribute to a largely unknown historical figure who likely didn’t get their due back when they were alive.
God’s Own Country director Francis Lee is ostensibly doing this with Ammonite, which centers on the fictionalized love affair that unfolds between brilliant-but-overlooked English paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and wealthy young tourist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). It’s an intriguing setup for a retelling, particularly in its themes of how class disparities further challenge women’s ability to do great work, and of the many queer love stories written off as friendships in later annotations. Unfortunately, Ammonite is just too dreary and distant to illustrate these ideas in any truly meaningful way.
From its opening moments, the film is swathed in greys and blues that are as stark as the wind-torn coast where its protagonist scavenges. When we first meet Mary (a committed Winslet), her fossil-hunting glory days are behind her—although she’s made major discoveries, they’re now installed in London museums where the cosmopolitan men in her field treat her as an afterthought. An isolated, fiercely independent woman, Mary’s adopted a life of digging up fossilized tokens to sell in a dingy tourist shop, just narrowly escaping the threat of poverty that hangs over her and her elderly mother (Gemma Jones).
Everything changes when pompous geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives at Mary’s door, demanding that she hand over her expertise under the guise of admiration. Accompanying him is his wife Charlotte (played with a subdued impishness by Ronan). In real life, Charlotte was a distinguished geologist 10 years Mary’s senior. Here, she starts off as a frail, younger wisp of a woman who’s in a fog of depression after losing a baby.
Roderick soon decides that his formerly “bright, clever, funny wife” is now too delicate to accompany him on his upcoming travels and offers to pay Mary to take her on instead. The paleontologist is irritated at the prospect of looking after another person on top of her daily labor, but her current financial situation forces her to begrudgingly accept. The two initially struggle to see eye to eye—after all, Charlotte comes from the same corseted, upper-class Victorian world that offers no place for Mary.
They soon set to work on excavating a stubbornly coiled ammonite fossil on the beach, an on-the-nose metaphor for their thawing relationship in a film that’s subtle to a fault. Like his previous feature, Lee abandons expositional dialogue in favor of naturalism, his repressed lead’s closed-off world slowly but surely giving way to explosive moments of passion.
Although it’s easy to draw baseline parallels between Ammonite and last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there’s little to compare about the two apart from the fact that they’re both seaside lesbian period dramas. Lee’s detached style is ultimately detrimental to the central love story’s development, with Winslet and Ronan’s shaky chemistry making it all the more confusing as to when and how exactly the pair transitioned from reluctant acquaintances to lovers.
More disappointingly, Ammonite’s dull romance draws viewers away from what is supposed to be a celebration of Mary herself. She was a trailblazing, working-class woman of science at a time when institutions were incredibly hostile to her work, but Winslet’s unvarnished performance can only do so much with a shallow script. An ex-lover played by Fiona Shaw is the only real clue about Mary’s past existence beyond the story’s dry parameters. Yes, she and Charlotte eventually break out of their shells of loneliness and stifling polite society, thanks to the happenstance that throws them together. The women still feel largely unknowable, however, by the time Ammonite reaches its optimistic, Carol-esque ending. The women remain figures pulled from historical footnotes that never quite become flesh and blood.