Plot: In 1840s England, a fossil hunter, Mary Anning who owns her own fossil business but rarely gets proper credit for her major discoveries, falls in love with Charlotte, a younger woman married to a wealthy businessman. As Mary Anning’s feelings for this mysterious young woman grow, she starts to witness her life changing forever.
A follow-up to his critically-lauded GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, Francis Lee returns with a similarly themed, yet less effective, story of unlikely passion between two women on the opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum. A troubled romance which yields mixed results, AMMONITE is not without its merits but does not fully entirely succeed in creating audience investment in its two central characters. More slow-paced and contemplative than Lee’s previous film, the film’s composed tone risks alienating portions of the audience who may not find themselves rooting for, or entirely convinced by, the core dynamic that the film’s narrative essentially presents.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a woman who utterly dissolves in her work, giving it every inch of her soul. Unpopular yet independent and steel-willed, she seeks nothing more than professional progression until she comes across Charlotte Murchison, a younger woman suffering from a melancholic state and an unsuccessful marriage. When Anning is asked to take care of Murchison for a few weeks, the two grow closer and rediscover who they are.
Lee chooses to provide the film with a quiet, sometimes gloomy look and feel, perhaps a reflection of the central character’s own reality, but as the film progresses, this particular narrative tone does seem sometimes unfounded. Comparisons will surely be drawn to PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE, which tackles similar themes, but the film’s most striking flaw lies in the script’s inability to draw a believable, convincing and, more importantly, engaging relationship between its two leads. At times, it feels as though the characters fall in love out of narrative convenience rather than a build up of emotions that can aid audience investment in what’s unraveling on screen.
As distant and detached Mary Anning is, the film itself somewhat becomes an extension of Anning’s inner feelings. It is clear that Lee’s intention is not to reach for dramatic, over-the-top moments, yet, unlike GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, the dynamic doesn’t always work due to an imbalance in characterization. While the script serves Anning well by delving into her psyche, Murchison remains superficially portrayed, giving Saorise Ronan little chances to flesh out the character further and reduces her to flat, one-dimensional tropes. As Mary Anning, Winslet delivers an understated yet effective performance, capturing the character’s inner dilemmas and compellingly painting a picture of a complicated woman who, even at her most vulnerable, stays true to who she really is.
To say that the film’s most interesting relationship is not that of its central love story, but of Anning and her ailing mother (Gemma Jones) goes to show that much of the film’s running time falls victim to overplaying the detached, dry approach Lee had intended. On the plus side, the film boasts fantastic production and costume design, which unlike several period films of this kind, refuses to be overly flashy and stays true to character environments and the overall atmosphere of the story. Music, while sparse, is also effective, hinting at Anning’s inner turmoil and constant attempts to remain composed and resilient, even if the heart aches and longs for what was a brief, yet unforgettable, moment of passion.
Verdict: A more successful character study of Mary Anning than a compelling love story, AMMONITE risks being unearned at times. Detached, contemplative and dry, it avoids melodramatic tropes to deliver something more thoughtful but potentially more alienating.
This review is from the 45th Toronto International Film Festival. Neon will release Ammonite in the US on November 13, 2020.