Being two of the best actors currently working in the industry, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are infinitely reliable when it comes to delivering excellent performances – and by extension the expectation for what they are able to do as a pair is off the charts. In this respect, Francis Lee’s
Ammonite is certainly a success, as both stars not only do fantastic work but have sparking romantic chemistry. What’s unfortunate is that the movie is unable to provide a worthy story for the turns to hang on, and thus it can’t succeed in being much more than mediocre.
An original film inspired by the life of paleontologist Mary Anning, the period film transports audiences to the English coastal town of Lyme Regis in the 1840s, introducing the great scientific mind (Kate Winslet) as a lonely, cross woman living a life of mostly solitude – running a shop for tourists selling off her various fossil discoveries, and taking care of her elderly mother (Gemma Jones). Her routine is interrupted, however, when a tourist fascinated by the field of paleontology named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives in town and offers money for the opportunity to watch her work before setting out on his own expedition. With him is his young, sickly wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), for whom doctors have recommended a trip to the coast, with the hope being that the sea air can cure her melancholia.
After being enchanted by a day out with Mary, Roderick makes the request that she allow Charlotte to stay with her while he goes out of the country for a few weeks, and not being in a financial situation that allows her to refuse she agrees. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start, with Mary feeling put out by the imposition of what is ostensibly a babysitting job, and the circumstances are made more challenging by Charlotte taking a brief jaunt into the ocean and falling ill.
As they spend more time together, Mary and Charlotte’s relationship begins to evolve and become something deeper. More than just friends, they become passionate lovers, all the while knowing that their time together is limited by the eventual return of Charlotte’s husband.
Ammonite’s romantic drama doesn’t rise above anything you go in expecting from the film.
While Ammonite operates with a relatively quick pace and is never boring, it’s a bit surprising that the movie clocks in at just under two hours long, as it really isn’t a film where very much happens. What’s described above is the base setup for the plot that takes about half of the total running time, leaving the latter hour to center on the protagonists’ desire for one another and dealing with the consequences of their affair. There are occasional side characters who enter the picture – such as a doctor (Alec Secareanu) who is called on to care for Charlotte, and shows a clear attraction to Mary; and a colleague (Fiona Shaw) with whom Mary clearly has a past – but the sequences are simple, and all work in service of highlighting the lesbian relationship at the heart of the story.
None of this is inherently bad, but it does prevent the film from being exceptionally memorable or captivating, and it also happens to be a touch rote and over familiar. Much like Ammonite’s color palette, there is a preference for the muted and subtle (save for one explicit and passionate sex scene), and while this creates space for the performers to really excel and demonstrate the emotional capacities at the core of their craft, it also restricts the movie’s ability to make a lasting impact. The relationship between Mary and Charlotte will stick out in memory, but all other details will quickly fall away with little time.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan deliver great work and have exceptional chemistry.
As intimated, one can recognize the appeal of a movie like this for actors being the inherent challenge of working with the stark emotional contrast of stoicism and lust, and the leads here play it beautifully. It’s interesting to watch both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan ease into their respective roles, as you have to adjust to them playing atypical parts, but it’s wonderful to watch them take Mary and Charlotte on Ammonite’s journey.
Both actors are recognized for their ability to ratchet up the charisma and charm, but none of that is present for much of the film as both protagonists begin the story as miserable individuals. Because she is a woman, Mary has never received the proper recognition for her phenomenal work, and is left wearing her bitterness on her sleeve; and Charlotte is practically catatonic through the first act as she lives an utterly unfulfilled life. It’s the intensifying connection between the two women that allows them both to see new shades of the world, and Winslet and Ronan play those arcs perfectly while demonstrating realistic and entrancing chemistry.
Fans of romantic dramas, Kate Winslet, and/or Saoirse Ronan will find plenty to appreciate in Ammonite, but there’s not much to rave about beyond that. It works as a showcase of talent, but doesn’t have much of a story to tell.
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