Lesbian dramas set hundreds of years ago are suddenly all the rage. Following the much-acclaimed French film Portrait of a Lady on Fire earlier this year comes Ammonite from writer/director Francis Lee, which trades in two relatively unknown French actors for two A-list actors with a slew of Oscar nominations and/or wins to their credit.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a paleontologist in 1840s England who hunts for specimens on and near beaches, such as the titular fossil. Though an accomplished scientist, the time period prevents her from getting the same acclaim as some of her male peers. She leads a sheltered life with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), until Roderick and Charlotte Murchison (James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan) walk into her life.
Roderick is interested in learning from Mary, but he soon leaves the ailing Charlotte to stay with Mary in his stead. As the weeks go by, Mary and Charlotte go from an antagonistic relationship to one where they develop romantic feelings for one another, a bond enhanced by the isolation of Mary’s seaside home.
What isn’t immediately obvious in the film is that Anning was a real person, and the aspect of her being a working-class woman whose work was mostly unacknowledged in her time is accurate. Lee uses that as a basis to tell the fictional love story, as there is no record of any kind of relationship Anning had during her relatively short life (she died at 47).
Mary is portrayed as extremely reserved, shutting herself off from almost everyone she meets. Her opening up to Charlotte should feel like a significant transformation, but almost nothing about how the two interact early on gives an indication of where they’ll end up. It’s not out of nowhere – there’s a very strong hint of a previous relationship between Mary and Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a fellow paleontologist – but Lee does little to demonstrate chemistry between Mary and Charlotte.
Once they do connect, though, their relationship is as passionate as they come in movies, including one significantly graphic sex scene. While that scene can be viewed as both women finally letting go of the inhibitions put upon them by the male-dominated society, it also seems to be at odds with the tone of the rest of the film. As with their relationship in general, a more concerted effort to establish their connection would have lent the scene more credibility.
Both Winslet and Ronan are fantastic actors with envious Oscar histories, but neither one is able to spread her wings in this film. Both are held back by characters who are morose, and even when they give each other a bit of a spark, there’s little joy to any of their interactions. Neither is capable of being bad, but more nominations for this film are unlikely.
Romance is a tricky thing to get right, especially when your characters are mostly closed books. Ammonite has the talent bona fides and type of story to be an awards contender, but there’s just that ineffable something missing from the narrative that holds it back.
Ammonite is playing in select theaters; it debuted on premium video on demand on December 4.