Ammonite succeeds solely by the sheer force of its leads performances and brilliant cinematography, despite an underwhelming script and direction from director Francis Lee.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a self-taught paleontologist who also runs a shop selling what she finds on the nearby beach in Lyme Regis. Her work features in museums across the UK, but she is never recognised for her work. Roderick and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) visit with Roderick wanting to learn from Anning for a brief while before he leaves on an expedition. Charlotte has rightly still not gotten over the loss of their child and as Roderick explains suffering from mild melancholia. Leaving Charlotte in the care (well-paid care) of Mary. He goes on his expedition so that Charlotte can find peace and time to find the joy that was once there. Slowly we see our leads begin their wary friendship after Charlotte recovers from a fever. Both opening up and sparks begin to ever so slowly fly.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are strong here and they have to be as they have been given in all honestly quite under-written characters (we will come back to that later). Winslet is tough and withdrawn and portrays Anning well from what we have learned about her. This is a subtle performance from Winslet with little to work with script-wise, there is the feeling that she is forcing the film to be on her level. The same is said for Ronan, she illuminates the screen with her presence and is the perfect companion to Winslet here. They have strong chemistry that grows throughout the film and you feel their connection.
Both commit to their characters and the film is better for having them. With limited dialogue throughout the film, we are left to rely on subtle movements from Winslet and Ronan to transmit their thoughts and needs. It is delicate and superb work from them both.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography provides us with a visually stark film, greys and blue take over the screen for the opening hour or so, slowly allowing yellows to come forward as Mary’s coldness thaws away. When we see the sunlight etch through the grey clouds, it provides us with the belief that there is hope here for these characters (yet knowing their real-life futures is decidedly grim and one you should only do so after watching the film). You feel the coldness echoed through the camera and it is astonishingly great work from Fontaine.
Mary is made to look rough and drained from experiences in this world. While Charlotte still has that optimistic blush of youth about her and it is this dynamic that drives the film to work as well as it does. It is a smart direction and performances that keep us invested in our characters. This is a low key drama and one that when it is in flow works very well. However, it seems to stall far too often.
For all of the good work in the performances and cinematography, Ammonite flounders at its most integral part, the story. There are far too many scenes that just go on for an age that could have been helped with something to make it more alive. There are an uncountable amount of scenes of Winslet’s Anning being withdrawn and silent around characters for long stretches at a time. The audience understands that she is this way and the reasons why she is withdrawn from everyone. We can move on and focus on something slightly more pressing.
We sit at the kitchen table with Anning and her mother as they clean the ornaments or her mothers’ “children”. It is touching, and when Molly catches Charlotte touching them and when Mary isn’t there for the daily routine, Molly is upset. We get it and those three moments and the subtle story as to why they sit and clean them is mentioned. But we go back to them more than that and it is simply too much.
In truth, Ammonite does not need to be as long as it is and could very well do with having 15 minutes cut out. Or at least the 15 minutes that could have been sacrificed to fill the gaps in the story. To being the audience something worth clinging onto. Another issue with Ammonite and its main one being that we have a stoic, withdrawn character. Still reeling from a failed romance who’s south coast icy façade is being chipped away by a lighter presence. But while we see rays of warmth come from Mary, she remains tepid.
The sex scenes are explicit, raw and powerful. The first one is a release for both women to final get their frustrations and needs out of themselves. It is a rush of blood to the head, but one that they need and importantly the film does as well. We are left twiddling our thumbs for some sort of emotion spark to happen that you cheer when it does. That said however the final encounters inclusion is less necessary. The story dictates that they must part for now and this is an urgent and needy goodbye to each other, to each others support systems. Yet, the explicitness does not seem earned here for us to see, nor does it seem necessary. Ammonite doesn’t need that much of the final encounter and it’s a tad confusing as to why it is included.
If the protagonist stays withdrawn throughout the film and is unreachable to the audience. Then there is a big issue with your film. Mary is beaten down from failed romances. The loss of her siblings, being looked over for being female in her career. By the way, this is a career that Mary doesn’t seem to have any interest in other than she knows she is good at it. She does so to support her family after her fathers passing at an early age.. We as an audience want to see Mary happy, to loosen her tightly wound shoulders and to enjoy her life. Yet we never do, we have hope of it. But she freezes up quicker than that first step into the cold sea in an October morning. This is frustrating to see the character written this way.
While there is a lot to like in Ammonite. Sadly it never brings enough warmth to the screen nor lure the audience into this world, that it instead leaves us cold and wanting..
To view more of our reviews as we cover the London Film Festival 2020, please have a gander below!