I spent most of my time watching writer/director Francis Lee’s (God’s Own Country) new film Ammonite in awe of its lead character, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). She’s a reserved but well-respected, self-taught paleontologist who combs the rocky coastline of her home in Lyme Regis (in southern England) for fossils that she excavates, cleans up, and sells to wealthy tourists to provide for herself and her sickly live-in mother Molly (Gemma Jones). There was a time not so long ago when Mary was making great discoveries; although she’s never seen it there, one of her finds is on display at a London natural history museum. Mary has lost her spark for living and her passion for her work. She’s getting by but she’s given up.
One of the tourists who comes into her small shop is Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who is at the beginning of a lengthy European tour with his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), a woman suffering from severe melancholia after miscarrying the couple’s first child. Roderick has made a point to visit Mary, offering to pay her handsomely to accompany Charlotte on an expedition on the coast. He seeks her out given her reputation in the scientific community as being one of the great fossil discoverers in the country. But because she’s a woman (and this is the 1840s), she can never get the credit due to her (the fact that Anning was, in fact, a real person only adds to the tragedy of her story and this film).
The husband ultimately decides to take a doctor’s orders and leave his wife for several weeks while he continues his travels and she takes in the sea air for her health. Again, he offers Mary money to look after his wife and take her out on collections, and of course she can’t turn him down as much as she dreads the prospect. Still, despite the differences in their social class, age and general demeanor, Mary and Charlotte do connect. We’re able to watch Mary reluctantly come out of her shell, being drawn out by Charlotte’s re-emerging charm and desire to learn. Watching Winslet navigate this character is endlessly gripping and a far better experience than the film itself. Mary has been rejected in every corner of her life—by the scientific community, by a previous love interest (an awkward exchange with another woman in town, Elizabeth Philpot, played by the great Fiona Shaw, tells us most of what we need to know), and by a life that involves endlessly taking care of her mother and doesn’t allow her any type of freedom to enjoy herself.
Not surprisingly, the two women begin a secret love affair that we assume will have to end when Charlotte’s husband calls her back home upon his return. But for a flittering instant, they both find a kind of happiness that has likely been otherwise unknown to them. The central problem with Ammonite is timing, in that it comes out about a year after the masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which tackled not only a similar relationship, but also couched it in the assumption that it was doomed from the start. But unlike last year’s offering, Ammonite ends on a cautiously optimistic note that betrays the emotional cruelty that the times dictated. In addition, filmmaker Lee has left Charlotte a bit unformed. For as much as we discover about Mary during the course of the film (in a revelation process that is meant to mirror her careful excavation routine), we don’t get to know or appreciate all of Charlotte’s story or personality. The pessimist in me wondered if she were somehow trying to replace the feelings she lost for her child with those she feels for Mary—seeing her as someone to take care of.
There’s a moment near the end of the film where Mary visits London and gets the chance to see her most well-known fossil discovery displayed prominently in a museum. I got more emotional at that moment than I did any other time watching the movie. That would have been a huge moment for her, and it’s almost stepped on by this love story’s final shot. Granted, there will be some who view Ammonite just at the prospect of getting to see Winslet and Ronan blow kisses at each other. In fact, the love scenes here are surprisingly graphic (within R-rated reason) and not brief. If that’s all you care about, this is your lucky day, you animal.
Ammonite is by no means unwatchable, but the potential for it to have been so much more is achingly clear to me. It barely explores the idea that getting caught having such a relationship would have destroyed Mary Anning’s life completely, whereas Charlotte’s husband would likely have found it easy to cover it up to save embarrassment. Both actors are clearly capable of digging deeper into these characters, so why not let them? The movie is more of a disappointment than an outright failure, but this one stings a bit.
The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and will be available on VOD December 4. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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