Two remarkable performances make "Ammonite" worth discovering, but this film crumbles under its own weight.
Mary Anning was an important, incredibly influential British palaeontologist who live in the early 1800s. A woman living in a man's world back then, she lived poor and never received the accolades she deserved until decades after her death. But her fossil discoveries off the Southern English shore, Lyme Regis, helped scientists of the time develop theories of extinction and helped pave the way to the modern understanding of a time when dinosaurs roamed the planet.
In the film "Ammonite," Anning (Kate Winslet) is given a lesbian romance with Charlotte Murchison (Saorse Ronan), a geologist who did exist and who at one point was recorded as having worked alongside Anning. The two became real-life friends. The simmering romance the two share in the film is, however, not based on any known facts, meaning that "Ammonite," at best, is somewhat of a stretch when it comes to historical accuracy.
In the film, Anning is a tough-as-nails fossil collector, living with her mum (Gemma Jones) in a shabby house near the coast, selling fossils to visiting tourists. A wealthy admirer, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) idolizes Anning and her life's work, and she begrudgingly agrees to allow him to tag along for a while, so he can see first-hand what she does. His wife, Charlotte (Ronan), suffers from "a touch of melancholia," so Roderick asks Anning another favor: To let his wife stay with her for several weeks, thinking the "sea air" might be good for her. Anning agrees against all of her instincts, and the two woman end up exhuming buried feelings within one another more precious than anything that could be found on the shoreline.
Ronan but especially Winslet are outstanding, the main difference being that Winslet is given more of a character to work with. Anning is a woman burning with passion but who has never had an outlet for her desires. Charlotte is never given the same depth - a problem on the page and not anything to do with Ronan's performance - and it's never quite clear what exactly sparks her, or why Anning fulfills her needs.
The end result is a period romance film that never quite finds its purpose. Sure, the leads are outstanding, but they're performances trapped...much like one of the fossils that Anning was known for. The metaphors of this sort of "caged heat" are palpable in "Ammonite," but the slow-burning pace of the film might be more than many can take. There are a few explicit sex scenes between Winslet and Ronan that will get people talking, but even that scene doesn't quite seem to escape the film's trappings.
"Ammonite" needs a bit more polishing, a bit more refining, for it to be considered a real gem. Instead it's a pretty rocky film to endure.
Genre: Drama, Biography, Romance.
Run Time: 2 hours.
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Alec Secareanu, Fiona Shaw.
Written and Directed by Francis Lee ("God's Own Country").
"Ammonite" is in theaters on Friday, November 13th, 2020.
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