Fair or unfair, my mind kept comparing Ammonite to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another period film about repressed women, furtive expressions of forbidden love, and isolation-fueled intimacy, and Ammonite was inferior in every regard. In all fairness, Portrait of a Lady on Fire was one of the best films of 2019 and deeply emotional, romantic, and sumptuous. It would be hard for many films to compete in direct comparison, and as such Ammonite can’t compare.
In 1840s England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a nationally renowned paleontologist. She spends her days digging up fossils along the rocky shore of her small town, caring for her aging mother, and keeping to herself. Her life is turned upside down when Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) becomes her boarder while recuperating from some melancholia following a miscarriage. Charlotte wants to learn from Mary but Mary is more annoyed, and yet the two lonely women find a kinship in one another that turns into a romantic courtship neither knows where it will lead.
Repressed romances work best when you feel the connection between the characters, a growing hunger or desire, and you’re compelling them together from afar. This was the case for me with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This was not the case for me with Ammonite. I cannot tell you why either Mary or Charlotte fall for one another. Neither is a very interesting character, especially Mary, who is very private and closed-off. She’s been hurt in the past with a previous gay romance (an underused Fiona Shaw) so likely gun-shy about risking vulnerability once more. There are mentions about her career and the satisfaction it provides but much of it is kept as generalized motivation, a woman making a name for herself in a man’s world. Charlotte is recoiling from a personal tragedy and an absent husband, but why do these two feel any spark of romance for one another in this oppressively drab setting? There’s more intense heat between Winslet and her fossils than with Ronan. It feels like we’re only at this point out of boredom and a lack of better options.
For a movie about repressed passions, Ammonite is decidedly grey. This muted color palette and tone extends to everything about the movie. It’s all grey skies, grey pebbles, grey shores, grey bonnets, grey leggings, grey carts, grey houses, grey this, grey that, irrepressible grey. This dreary life is effectively conveyed and saps the movie’s energy. The characters go about their dreary lives that you, as the viewer, are begging for some renewed life to emerge. We’re begging for these characters to find something with one another because the world, as depicted, is bereft of life and excitement. To that end, the movie has established a favorable threshold to succeed and yet it still falls short.
This stark, stately, and tight-lipped style of writer/director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) smothers the resulting romance and drama at play. These two women should be able to unwind with one another, open up, become their true selves the rest of the world is denied, something that cannot be manifested separately. They should be more interesting together, plain and simple. This person should unlock something within. I don’t feel like I gained any more insight into either Charlotte or Mary when they were together. Part of this is because it takes so long to get there and also because their coupling seems, in retrospect, to be completely surface-level in personal meaning. Looking back from its completion, it appears that each woman seems to misread the other person and what their intimacy has meant. I’ll credit the filmmakers for at least tacking on a resolution that amounts to more than “woman returns to husband and they can never ever be together again because Evil Patriarchy.” There is an ending but it’s not that much better than the two of these women sadly parting knowing they’ll never see one another again and that this brief time together will remain precious. I don’t know if I’m supposed to leave with the impression that Charlotte and Mary have the opposite conclusion. While they likely enjoyed the companionship and sex, as the camera seemed to, it seems like maybe both women are realizing that’s where it stops. If this was the intended goal, that’s fine, but don’t set up the entire estate of your storytelling upon this romance if it’s meant to fizzle. This ends up becoming the latest film example of Women Looking Sad in Bonnets.
I’m sorry dear reader but I was growing bored with this movie. In comparison, I was spellbound with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and found its awakened passions to be luminous and directly tied to two interesting characters. Charlotte and Mary are quite boring. Again, they have potential to be interesting; any lesbian romance set in the 1840s certainly has potential for appealing drama. I was asked by my girlfriend, who herself was giving voice to an argument carrying on social media, why there must be no shortage of forbidden queer romances, and why can’t gay audiences just have movies where gay characters can fall in love and be comfortable being gay? It’s a legitimate question, though my only answer is that these period piece queer tales inherently involve internal struggles given the secrecy and consequences that make for ready drama for big-time actors. There’s also the fact that Mary Anning is a celebrated paleontologist and recognized superstar in her field and there is no evidence that any of her close female friendships were anything more than that. I’m fine with rewriting historical figures as queer and changing things up (I heartily enjoyed the queer revisionism in The Favourite) as long as it still makes the people interesting. Imagine taking a historically celebrated female paleontologist, making her gay, and then somehow making this character even more boring? How do you even do that?
Winslet (Steve Jobs) does a fine job of looking and acting glum. My trouble was trying to determine what points of life were recognizable with her character. How does one acknowledge what this change agent is doing to her when she’s, by nature, so insular and shut off? Winslet is one of her generation’s finest actresses and can do so many amazing things, and yet her guiding directorial note must have been, “Can you dial it back even more?” There’s a fine line between subtlety and just being lifeless. Ronan (Little Women) has even less substance to work with. At first, her character is suffering and lonely, but she leaps at companionship with abandon. Her character doesn’t seem like she’s wild or reckless or impulsive in any other regard. She stops wearing black when she embraces her feelings for Mary (Get it? She’s no longer in mourning). Still, Charlotte’s ultimate view of the world is one of privilege but this doesn’t inform her character until the very end. Ronan does her part making an audience believe she’s lovesick for Mary, but feeling it is another matter, and even an actress of Ronan’s caliber cannot accomplish this with this flagging script.
Ammonite is so drab, so passionless except during its sweaty sex scenes, that you’d be forgiven for wondering why anyone would even bother making this story come alive in the first place. If you’re all about furtive gestures and glances and the color grey, well you might be in luck. Look, I’m just going to be blunt. If you’re even remotely thinking about watching Ammonite, just seek out and watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s superior in every regard and a forbidden romance that is actually, surprise surprise, romantic and full of evocative feeling. Plus it’s French, so automatically more romantic. Watch that instead.
Nate’s Grade: C+