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‘Ammonite’ Review: Portrait of a lady made of stone

Can one scene save a movie from itself?

Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in 'Ammonite'.
(Image: © NEON)

Our Verdict

'Ammonite' is a stony facsimile of other lesbian period dramas that doesn’t make enough of an interesting point to serve as more than an awards-baiting footnote.

For

  • 👗Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give very committed performances.
  • 👗The final scenes act as a clever bit of narrative subversion.

Against

  • 👗The tone is understated to the point of sterility.
  • 👗The dull color palette bleeds any life from the film.

Ammonite is currently only available to watch in theaters. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we recommend checking it out at your local drive-in. If one isn’t available, please be sure to check out state and CDC guidelines before watching in an enclosed space.

It’s very tempting when reviewing Ammonite to say “It’s fine,” shrug, drop the mic, and walk away. It’s a film that is almost exactly what it appears to be, a period lesbian romance where some of our most acclaimed actresses can pretend to be attracted to one another for two hours to they can rack up Best Supporting Actress nominations. But it’s also a really disappointing example of that phenomenon, delivering a film that is technically competent, and may even be unduly clever in trying to subvert itself out of existence, but is nevertheless tedious to sit through. It’s a stony facsimile of other lesbian period dramas like Portrait of a Lady on Fire or Carol, possibly by design, that doesn’t make enough of an interesting point to serve as more than an awards-baiting footnote.

Based on the real exploits of fossil-hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) in 1840s England, Ammonite finds her living with her mother (Gemma Jones) in a seaside cottage, selling her prehistoric finds with hopes of finding larger samples to contribute to the scientific community. When a wealthy tourist (James McArdle) pays her for the opportunity to join her on her beach-bound excavations, he quickly becomes disillusioned and leaves his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s reluctant care to force recovery from depression brought on by the death of their infant child. Once a sudden bout of physical illness leaves Charlotte immobile, Mary is left with the task of nursing her back to health, prompting Charlotte to open up to Mary with hopes of Mary opening up in return.

Charlotte’s comatose transition from traumatized repression to doe-eyed adoration is played a bit sudden and jarring, and it shows just how much Ammonite is playing with a template in a near emotional vacuum. To some degree, this is intentional, as Mary is a reclusive figure who does not like other people very much and actively seeks to keep everyone, including Charlotte, at arm’s distance. Meanwhile, Charlotte’s desire to draw her out may be sudden, but it’s also an expression of her relative youth, a kind of giddy desperation to connect with someone over a rare demonstration of kindness and an unspoken attraction. That in itself should be a compelling foundation for a romantic connection between disparate personalities.

Yet the film can never quite break free of Mary’s frigidity, as even Mary’s eventual acquiescence to Charlotte’s advances is conveyed with cold sterility. Some of this can be attributed to a color palette dominated by muted greys and blues, which is appropriate to the English seaside setting but conveys a dour attitude even as the film might not intend it. But even more than that, the romantic chemistry between the leads never quite clicks into place. Winslet is trying desperately to bridge the gap between Mary’s antisocial nature and her newfound lust while remaining within writer-director Francis Lee’s understated tone, but the effort proves Sisyphean as the character is never allowed the emotional expressiveness to be relatable. Even the sex scenes fall squarely into the realm of theoretically erotic, personified more by violent clashes rushing to climax than displays of intimacy.

The only thing preventing me from writing the film off entirely is a single scene in the third act that recontextualizes Mary and Charlotte’s relationship in a way that makes the film’s tonal sterility seem intentional. It’s the scene that transforms the film from dull blur to interesting conversation piece, and it might even elevate opinions of the film upon revisitation. But that still fails to make up for the nearly two tepid hours it takes to get there, and it feels wasteful to sacrifice any chance at emotional investment for a single point of intellectual nuance.

It would be unfair to criticize Ammonite for not being Portrait of a Lady on Fire, obvious points of comparison notwithstanding. It’s a different film with different objectives in storytelling, and one could reasonably argue that it achieves its goals with its final act of narrative subversion. But do we really need the hollow, drawn-out facsimile of a romance simply to make a point about characters we aren’t given enough opportunity to properly relate with? Do we really need a protagonist made of stone, cast in a tepid relationship that should be the film’s selling point? It’s not hard to respect Ammonite for its ambitions, but it’s much easier to be disappointed with how it fails to be emotionally engaging on its own terms.

Ammonite is now in theaters and will be available on VOD on December 4, 2020.
Read how the film sacrifices real-life scientific achievements for a fictional love story.