2020, R, 117 min. Directed by Francis Lee. Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones.
REVIEWED By Jenny Nulf, Fri., Nov. 13, 2020
Director Francis Lee is fascinated with the earth. In his first feature, God’s Own Country, he takes the everyday landscape of a farm and folds in a cozy, muddy romance between two men. With his second feature, Ammonite, his vision is less craggy and more smooth, like the fossils his subject, eminent Victorian paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet), hunts for alongside the cliffs of Dorset, England. In the structure of this period biopic, he fabricates a romance between Mary and her friend Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), filling in the gaps between the fossilized silt, sand, and bones and building a relationship between two individuals who find each other when they are at their most desperate and lonely because of crushing circumstance.
Lee builds his characters around nature, whether it be Mary’s rough tumble down a cliffside as she grasps for a giant ammonite fossil, or Charlotte’s attempt to bathe in the biting chill of the English Channel so she can wash away her post-miscarriage depression. Like the rough waves splashing against the cliffs, Lee molds Mary and Charlotte’s relationship by breaking them down, eroding their differences so the two can come together and feel alive, a scapegoat for their melancholy. Lee’s a patient director, never diving head first into lust. He has patience for his characters, so when Charlotte finally rips off her wedding ring to dig through black mud to unearth a giant fossil with Mary, the release of tension is tangible, and exciting.
But where this mixture of nature and budding romance is blistering in the contemporary queer God’s Own Country, Ammonite is noticeably more glacial, and perhaps that’s the point. Ronan and Winslet are not meant to have a sweeping, heated romance, especially since Mary is a cold and shelled-up, private woman. There’s no absolute celebration in their love because they aren’t built to last – where Mary is fine with the life she lives outside patriarchal confinements, doing something she loves, Charlotte still wants to try to find a way to live comfortably under her very own oppression, molding it to her benefit rather than rejecting and fighting it. So there is an underlying bitter sadness, even when there are moments of warmth and delicate sunshine. In addition, Ronan’s performance is one of her weaker ones, and her sexual compatibility with Winslet seems a bit in over her head, whereas Winslet’s a magnet onscreen, her yearning, pained glances working overtime.
And while there’s no fire, Lee does have tender rays of hope streaked throughout. Charlotte can be warm and charming, the light of the party as her husband Roderick (McArdle) describes her. As the “presiding Deity of Lyme,” Mary always tucks herself away in the dreariness, but Charlotte’s privilege and naivete break down her barriers. “The rock was worth the work,” Charlotte muses over their beach findings. However, the gentle daylight is only a glimpse, as all the dirt that’s brushed away once again hardens as it becomes clear that Mary and Charlotte’s paths cannot intersect without the other drastically changing their life.
There is a refreshing change with Ammonite, though. Whereas most period-set queer dramas are steered by hot-blooded “forbidden romance” tropes, Lee normalizes Mary and Charlotte’s relationship. There’s never a moment where they hesitate because sex between two women isn’t normal, because this drama instead explores two contrasting people who, in the end, make their choices. It’s an ambitious, sometimes too bitter, second feature, but Lee somewhat manages to corrode the too-often fetishized queer period drama into something much more modern than its setting suggests.