It feels inevitable to compare Ammonite to last year’s excellent Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Both films are period lesbian romances set in rough, cliff-based locales; they even share a distributor. Writer-director Francis Lee may have set out to accomplish a different film than Celine Sciamma made, but Portrait of a Lady on Fire’s success is doubtless what made Neon keen to pick Ammonite up. Lee’s film is less a romance or relationship drama than it is a character study, which makes the comparison a little unfair. It is, however, unavoidably linked to and dragged down by Sciamma’s film. Where Portrait of a Lady on Fire was empowering and painterly, Ammonite feels determined to be as dour and dry as possible.
Lee’s film follows real-life 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who lives with her mother (Gemma Jones) in Lyme Regis on the Dorset coast in England. Mary hunts for fossils and sells them in a shop attached to her home, sending the larger ones to be studied by England’s scientific community. She’s approached by a wealthy tourist with scientific aspirations (James McArdle), who pays Mary to take him on a beach expedition. Having had his fun, he takes off, leaving his wife Charlotte (Saorsie Ronan), who’s dealing with depression related to a miscarriage, in Mary’s unwilling care. After Charlotte is struck with a physical illness, Mary nurses her back to health, which leads the two women to open up to each other.
There’s an interiority to Mary and Charlotte that Lee suggests but, frustratingly, never explores. After Charlotte’s convalescence, the subject of her miscarriage never comes up again, which feels strange, given that it’s been a defining element of the character up to that point.. It’s also disappointing to see Ronan so subdued, when her work in movies like Little Women and Lady Bird allowed her to be complex and charismatic. We do see a little of that charisma sprinkled through this film, but it’s rarely displayed in relation to Mary.
Winslet works hard to bring humanity to the closed-off Mary, but there’s not enough material here for her to do much other than look hardened. A conversation between Mary and her ex, Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw) suggests that she’s capable of sustained passion, but again, it’s something we barely see. Apart from Mary’s unique profession, there’s nothing about the character that suggests we should want to spend time with her–the folks surrounding her, Shaw included, would make for a much more enjoyable experience.
Even Ammonite’s visuals are sapped of beauty. A visit by Mary to Elizabeth’s home, and later to Charlotte’s home in London, are the sole instances of color, suggesting that Lee’s choice of palette reflects Mary’s existence and the landscape in which she works. All these moments do, however, is remind us of what we’re missing. Portrait of a Lady on Fire also prominently featured a rugged, windswept coast, but Sciamma at least managed to make it look pleasant.
Ultimately, Ammonite doesn’t do much to justify the necessity of its existence. This isn’t to say that Mary Anning’s story isn’t one worth telling, but rather that the film seems to do her a disservice by making her so unpleasant to be around. By being so subtle and withholding, Francis Lee isn’t being economical with his storytelling, but simply dull. At two hours, there’s certainly space to go deep, just an odd lack of willingness.
“Ammonite” is out Friday on demand.