We meet palaeontologist Mary Anning’s work first, a giant fossil hustled into a museum, shoved brusquely past a working woman, and delivered to a place of honor among a pack of nattering white men. It’s a fitting start for “Ammonite,” a film about the kind of people who spend their lives searching out the giant ribbed and spiraled fossils of the extinct underwater mollusks and the kind of people trapped in shells of their own making. In Francis Lee’s “Ammonite,” those people are one and the same, care of fictitious spins on Mary (Kate Winslet) and her geologist friend Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). The result is a chilly, detached romance between the two women that never catches fire, a film about restrained people that itself is so buttoned-up as to be impenetrable.
It offers a strong start, as Lee layers key observations about both of his leads and the town of Lyme Regis on the coast of the English Channel, a desolate location where they will spend most of their time together. These early indicators will have to carry the film and its characters throughout its nearly two-hour running time, which grows more removed by the minute. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography, all dark shadows and foggy ocean vistas, echoes that iciness, though the single scene that takes place in full sunlight hints at a more vibrant film underneath. It has the effect of sucking in a breath of fresh air, and even the actors seem more alive within it.
During her first meeting with the solitary and biting Mary, Charlotte stays mostly out of the frame. Stuck in a seemingly cold marriage and suffering from a “mild melancholia” that appears to have struck after a very real tragedy, she’s a mute thing still unable to hide her latent curiosity with the world around her. Left behind by her fossil-hunting husband — he’s a great believer in the power of sea bathing and walks, both easy to come by in Lyme — Charlotte is also expected to tag along on Mary’s fossil-finding missions, and she eventually sparks to both the pastime and her prickly host.
What bonds people can be hard to grasp, but Lee and his stars occasionally alight on small, pivotal moments that nearly explain their growing attraction. When Mary asks Charlotte her opinion (likely a rare occasion with her blowhard husband), Charlotte glows with pleasure. In another scene, one look from Mary sees Charlotte zip from loud laughter to great, heaving sobs and it starts to chip away at both of their shells. Still, those moments are in short supply, and fade far too soon.
Eventually bonded by a hazy combination of happenstance, respect, and possibly boredom, Mary and Charlotte jump into a secret romance. Despite Winslet and Ronan slipping into their characters with gusto, Lee’s screenplay lets them down. The script is littered with cliches, from the “oh, we’ve just got the one bed” scenario that bolsters many a romance novel, to delivering important character details by way of feverish sleep-talking and serendipitous glances that land on characters during revelatory moments. These tropes are common to heterosexual stories and utilizing them in a lesbian romance could be refreshing in its own way, but “Ammonite” doesn’t use them for anything new; it’s just another way to force along a slim story.
Inevitably (and not without cause), “Ammonite” will be compared to another recent Neon release: Celine Sciamma’s luscious “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The films share material traits; they’re both period-set pieces that take place on windswept beaches and oddly empty residences, and follow a pair of unexpected would-be lovers thrown together at the desire of the people who control their lives. In emotional content, however, their differences loom large. While Sciamma’s film was just as concerned with her characters’ interior lives (and not only her central pair, but other important women around them), after its first act “Ammonite” can muster no such interest.
That extends to the film’s big love scene, a purposefully disengaged sequence that unfolds during Mary and Charlotte’s most desperate hours together. The actresses reportedly helped choreograph the scene, and while it sees the stars moving and touching in ways that are believable (and certainly not porn-style “sexy”), it is still possessed by sensibilities more ready-made for the movies. (To put in a less decorous fashion: It’s unfortunate that, even with women calling the shots, “Ammonite” still seems happy to deliver male-gaze-y ideals about how quickly a sex act can bring a woman to the heights of pleasure.) Even in their most intimate scene, Mary and Charlotte and their love remain at a remove.
Elsewhere, Lee’s restraint is more successful. The film never delivers obvious platitudes about how difficult it was to be a 19th-century woman who loved other women, and how any dreams of a happy life together are all but impossible. Although Mary’s mother occasionally shoots the pair biting glances, the film doesn’t wield the threat of discovery. It’s clear that this romance is not one for public eyes and Lee trusts his audience to understand that with a minimum of information.
The film’s supporting cast doesn’t receive the same benefit. Gemma Jones appears as Mary’s mother Molly, who exists mostly to cough in a register best termed “foreshadowing,” while Lee’s “God’s Own Country” star Alec Secareanu appears as a new-in-town doctor who takes a shine to a very disinterested Mary, all the better to really hammer home that she’s not at all into guys. The regal Fiona Shaw and an appropriately wormy James McArdle make off a bit better as Mary’s former lover and Charlotte’s unfeeling husband. Shaw’s Elizabeth Philpot might be tasked with delivering some truly unnecessary exposition, but she makes it feel human. And while McArdle’s Roderick Murchison makes an early mark, he all but disappears from the film in its last 90 minutes, all the better to capture how fully he has disappeared from Charlotte’s thoughts.
Many have argued that Mary’s sexuality was never confirmed (Charlotte is less of a question mark; she was indeed married to Roderick Murchison for over 50 years). We know Mary Anning never married, a historical footnote that carries plenty of possible connotations. The wholesale creation of a great romance with Charlotte Murchison is a tricky business: It could be salacious for the hell of it; it could rob the real Mary of her own story.
Lee’s film does something else: It all but begs for a fact-based accounting of what we do know of Mary Anning. For all of its romantic ideas and tragic underpinnings, “Ammonite” only inspires the desire to know more about the real Mary Anning and her actual work. A similar concept takes root in the film’s final moments when Mary and Charlotte grapple with the sense that neither of them really knows each other. Even Charlotte can’t grasp what Mary’s work — and the pain that comes with a lack of recognition by the world at large — truly means to her. Loving someone doesn’t ensure you will always be able to understand them; Lee and his stars may love these characters, but they never understand them. Neither can we.
“Ammonite” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Neon will release it in theaters on November 13.