Ammonite struggles to summon the visceral potency or emotional depth needed to tell its story.
Three years on from Francis Lee’s terrific gay drama, God’s Own Country, and the director has moved on from the romantic union of two lusty male farmers to a 19th-century entanglement between a female paleontologist and an unhappy wife. Away from the rural wilds of Northern England and set in the picturesque coastal town of Lyme Regis, Ammonite marks Lee as an author of gay dramas entrenched in cultures that both fear and repress sexuality. The film chronicles the budding relationship between fossil expert Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and downtrodden wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the latter of whom is residing in the town for health reasons while her husband works away. While last year’s fetching lesbian picture Portrait of a Lady on Fire acutely expressed the aching thirst for sensitivity of women trapped in a man’s world, Ammonite is unable to build the same level of emotional depth into its central relationship, detailing a far more superficial lovers’ study and sorely lacking the primal urgency of Lee’s debut feature.
That relative shallowness leaves the film’s two uber-talented leads out at sea here: Winslet’s coiled spring of a performance is unilluminating in its sternness, while Ronan’s Charlotte never feels like a fully-formed creation. Happily, Fiona Shaw delivers a winning turn as Mary’s old flame Elizabeth, who, in only a handful of scenes, manages to allude to oodles of back-story and affectingly convey lingering heartache. Thematically, Ammonite‘s richest element is its juxtaposition of generational and class differences, examining how a gay relationship at this time and in this place could (or should) work. What exactly does happiness entail and what are its limitations? And for all of his film’s romantic inclinations, there’s a sense that Lee views this as a story of two individuals just trying to live their best lives within their given circumstances, no rebellious intent in the search for connection, and Ammonite’s ambiguous ending offers much to contemplate in that regard. By then, though, it’s a case of too little too late for Ammonite, which, with its dubious casting choices and strange dearth of passion, struggles to summon the visceral potency of God’s Own Country.
Originally published as part of London Film Festival 2020 — Dispatch 3.