Francis Lee, who first impressed audiences with his 2017 Bafta-nominated debut God’s Own Country, never quite creates the same magic with his sophomore feature Ammonite, a well-produced yet flawed romance starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
It’s the 1840s, and famed palaeontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) spends her time walking the beaches of Lyme Regis in search of fossils that she can clean up and sell to wealthy tourists, one of whom (Sir Roderick Murchison, played by James McArdle) pays her to keep his wife Charlotte (Ronan) company for a few weeks while he’s away. Charlotte’s suffering from poor mental health, silenced by her oppressive husband and traumatised by a recent incident, the specifics of which are left for the viewer to interpret.
Mary is a subdued woman, angry at the world and living with her irritable mother Molly (Gemma Jones), and at first she finds Charlotte’s company to be nothing short of a nuisance, but soon they find a connection through their shared loneliness, baring all to one another and finding solace in their emotional presence.
It’s certainly unfair that Ammonite is already being compared to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (released earlier this year), but perhaps only natural, given the similarities the two share, both being beach-set romances between two women. Sadly for Ammonite, it never seems to rise from the shadow of Sciamma’s deeply affecting masterpiece, but the presence of a similar yet superior film is far from the only reason Lee’s new work never really takes flight.
Winslet and Ronan are, unsurprisingly, on top form, both hitting the heights of their already illustrious careers and conveying raw emotion with the subtlest of touches, but their blossoming romance, while compassionately developed, never hits the right emotional notes.
Stéphane Fontaine shoots the film with real passion, the sound design is superbly complimentary and Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann’s score is used astutely, but these elements seem to serve to inflate the emotional core, rather than compliment it. At its bare bones, the film’s themes are approached a little too simplistically, with the inclusion of some fairly clunky dialogue, including the on-the-nose line ‘women are supposed to care for their sisters’ and Mary likening herself to a ‘bird in a cage.’ It feels like Lee telling us how we should feel, rather than earning it through strength of character, and it all just comes across a little too obvious, right down to the almost cartoon-ish portrayal of Roderick.
When it comes down to It, Mary and Charlotte’s relationship has no heat or any sense of passion. Of course, the film is more focused on the comfort that these two lonely people find together than it is their romance per se, but we’re left with performances so repressed that it masks any chemistry shared between the performers and feels as cold as the beach weather of Dorset. For a story so focused on the connection found between these two women, the material feels a little restrictive. Even the closing moments (an ambiguous ending that leaves Mary’s decision open to interpretation) feel a tad too implausible and, above all, not in keeping with the raw nature of the rest of the film.
Given the talent involved and the heartfelt character of Lee’s previous film, it’s somewhat disappointing that Ammonite seems so misjudged. His intentions are commendable and clear, but his execution seems to take any soul out of the picture.
While the film doesn’t necessarily succeed as a romance, it works far better as a character study of Mary Anning, a lonely, under-appreciated and repressed person who finds hope from an unexpected source and struggles with the risk of opening up to her. Kate Winslet’s performance is so wonderfully engrossing that these scenes are far stronger than much of the film, and one can’t help but wonder how special it might’ve been had it been more focused on her.
Much of Ammonite works very well indeed. The performances are exceptional, not just from Winslet and Ronan, but also from Fiona Shaw, who sells its emotional core better than most in just a couple of stand-out scenes. The film is expertly-crafted as a whole; talented professionals at work creating some truly beautiful cinema, but these elements aren’t able to elevate the film beyond its limited material.
The simple truth is that the heart of Ammonite is off-balance and doesn’t really work; a competent film, yes, but an emotionally dissonant one. It’s hard to fully engage with the material in any meaningful way, and it never strikes quite the chord that God’s Own Country did so effortlessly before.
Overall, it’s a film that’ll impress a lot of people, many of whom might say something along the lines of ‘well, that was very well-made’, but they probably won’t be moved. It’s trying far too hard.
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