Director Francis Lee attempts to explore the rawness of human connection in this British costume drama based on the life of historical figure Mary Anning, in a film that ends up falling just a little bit short of winning our hearts. Ammonite’s enticing cast and bold narrative themes meant that the groundwork for a deep love story was definitely there, its execution just failed to seize the intimacy and emotion that resided in its potential.
A beach cast in ashy hues of grey and blue is the birthplace of discovery for fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). Set in the 1840s, she spends her days treading the rocks of Lyme Regis, with nothing but the wailing gales, tumbling waves and her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), for company. She lives a solitary life pursuing palaeontology, but the sexism that plagues the industry expels Mary into the mundanity of selling seashell-encrusted trinkets to tourists.
When Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives unannounced requesting to work alongside Mary and enrich his fossil hunting experience, she begrudgingly agrees knowing the disturbance this will bring to her gloomy yet contented life, imbued with routine and order. However, it is not the presence of Roderick that breaks the peace, it is his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan).
Charlotte and Roderick’s relationship is void of intimacy. His controlling, abusive and oppressive manner sucks the life out of her. She is presented to us like an empty shell, much like the ones Mary collects and half-heartedly glues onto mirrors and jewellery boxes. Skin like paper and glassy-eyed, Charlotte is suffering from “a mild melancholia” according to Roderick, so he suggests that she stay with Mary in Lyme Regis as a form of therapy, the sea air her medicine and Mary her life support. The motif of fossils is used to represent Mary’s overdue unearthing of lesbian identity, buried by societal taboo and untold history.
Lee is no stranger to portraying queer love stories, with his debut God’s Own Country (2017) delving into male homosexuality with poignancy and sensitivity. This time, Ammonite’s two exceptional leads are what elevate the otherwise lacking story. Ronan plays Charlotte with a lovable grace; our hearts ache at her lows and soar at her highs. Winslet is unrecognisable as Mary, one which will likely be viewed as the best in her career. We can relate to her character even though her story is so detached from our realities, and understand her with very little dialogue.
It would be expected that two brilliant performances would make for an impactful chemistry. However, there is an air of unbelievability to the pair’s dynamic. Their romance is like a wave crashing to the shore, slow-building and over all too quickly. It felt like the narrative was rushed as the physical side of their relationship didn’t appear until halfway through the film; the build-up was certainly there but it can only go so far as a form of storytelling.
At times, the choreography of homoeroticism seems to feed into an unrealistic portrayal of female pleasure. If more time was devoted to the women growing to understand each other’s bodies and letting us linger in the intimacy, their chemistry would have felt more authentic.
Ammonite’s devotion to exploring the beauty of human connection makes erotic display all the more fundamental and it’s a shame it didn’t have the same impact as other scenes. Idyllic shots of iridescence as the pair frolic in the ocean depicts one of the rare instances where the colour palette warms and Mary’s face does too. Ammonite could have benefitted from more scenes like this, giving the sex scenes more of an emotional purpose, and moving away from voyeurism and closer to meaning.
The buzz around this film was partly due to it baring similarities to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire released earlier this year. Although this conjured excitement, it may also have led to Ammonite’s downfall. Intimacy is something Sciamma depicts beautifully within a sensory experience, and although Lee tries to explore this using a similar technique, it doesn’t quite create the same immersion due to the importance he places on guesswork and tension. Yet both films effectively use a lack of dialogue to pay homage to a history of people forced to repress their sexuality and hide their stories. Living in silence, but still living nonetheless.
In this light, Mary Anning was a real palaeontologist and her sexuality remains ambiguous. There is no proof that she shared such a relationship with real-life geologist Charlotte Murchison but creative treatment is a wonderful thing. Using Mary’s story as a vessel for a homosexual romance between two interesting and intelligent women, set during a time when this would have been taboo, remains important for queer representation.
Ammonite is an example of a film’s on-screen talent upstaging the narrative. Without Winslet and Ronan dedicating themselves to the roles, the film would sadly be painfully average. Lee’s thought-provoking characters promise a crucial journey of discovery but its fixation on build-up and lack of affection stands in the way of us truly falling in love with the union. In the same way Mary digs through pebbles and mud to find something of significance, Ammonite needed to dig a little deeper.
Photo Credit: Ammonite