Synopsis: Acclaimed paleontologist Mary Anning works alone selling common fossils to tourists to support her ailing mother, but a chance job offer changes her life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife.
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, Fiona Shaw
Director: Francis Lee
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: In the realm of the blockbuster comic book franchise films, it was front page news when Batman did battle with Superman and the buzz was booming when top acting star Bradley Cooper joined forces with mega-watt recording artist Lady Gaga for their remake of A Star is Born. Yet when two of the most respected actresses working today joined forces on a film for the first time it barely created a ripple effect in the film industry at the outset. I mean, this should have been some kind of cause for cheers. Look through most lists of best actresses (or just view the Oscar nominees from the last decade) and you’ll see the names Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan pop up often and there’s a reason for that. Both are highly charged performers that invite audiences into the worlds they create, crafting blood and bone people who feel as if they could leap off the screen.
By all accounts, the joining of these two talents on Ammonite should have been big news and for a while, it was. Here was a period drama featuring Winslet as real-life English fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning living in the chilly coastal Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and Ronan as Charlotte, a young wife who accompanies her amateur fossil-hunter husband to meet Mary and winds up staying behind. A fictionalized account of their friendship and eventual romance by writer/director Francis Lee, Ammonite should have been a slam dunk of a film for all involved. However, it has the misfortune of coming on the heels of two other movies, one directed by Lee himself, that have many of the same themes, and both play them with a richer sound.
There’s not much more to Ammonite than what I just laid out for you and what is etched out briefly in the synopsis…so you’re in for 117 minutes of rocks and frocks with little in the way of joy. I’d have expected more from everyone, especially considering this is a completely fabricated work that takes the life of a neglected woman from history and basically gives her the opportunity to be seen for the first time by a larger audience outside of the scientific community. Though Dickens supposedly wrote about her and rumor has it her dedication to excavating along the ocean line inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”, Mary Anning is mostly an unknown to the layperson. So why would Lee take us into her small piece of the world in Dorset and make it so gloomy gus?
Perhaps it was a desire from Ronan to slough off some of the porcelain veneer she’s achieved these last years as the catch-all for every kind of inspired ingenue through the ages. Between receiving Best Actress Oscar nominations for the headstrong Jo in Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, as an Irish immigrant bravely making a go of it on her own in mid-century NYC in Brooklyn, or as a determined and misunderstood high school senior in Lady Bird, she hasn’t had much of a chance to find the cracks and crevices in female characters that simply don’t have the answers to function on their own. In that way, Ammonite succeeds in providing an outlet for Ronan to stretch and expose herself in spirt and, in several graphic sex scenes, body.
On the other hand, Winslet struggles with going through the motions of another troubled woman held back by or judged more harshly on the norms of society. Similar to Iris, Jude, Little Children, and her Oscar-winning role in The Reader, Winslet knows how to work these sharp angles of women on the fringe that don’t care what people think but secretly are pained by their stares. We know she’s a loner from the jump and that Ronan will find a way to break down her walls, but in Lee’s telling we never quite see why, aside from the attention being paid to her from the young beauty. While Winslet and Ronan have an easy rapport, I never quite bought into their physical attraction to each other, though they do their best to help us get to some kind of acceptance by the film’s late in the game eye-opener of a bedroom encounter. Let’s just say this…if you’re watching Ammonite with someone else make sure you’re comfortable enough with them to withstand some extreme awkwardness. One of the best scenes in the film isn’t even between the two stars, it’s with Winslet and Fiona Shaw (Kindred) who makes a brief cameo in a role that is on one hand something new and different for Shaw to be seen in while at the same time playing in to her ability to give every character a nice little secret.
In 2017, Lee wrote and directed God’s Own Country, a superior film following the unlikely relationship that forms between two men and the contrast between that movie and Ammonite can’t be written off. Both feature someone living a hard-scrabble life without much in the way of availability to express their true feelings of physical love and a chance encounter with a passing stranger that affords some kind of passion to enter their hemisphere. Though the consequences in each film are different, knowing Lee is behind both suggests the filmmaker has more than a passing interest in telling stories of romance that blooms off the beaten path. Ammonite also parallels 2019’s rightfully-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire – you can almost draw arrows between both plots/characters that point to one another. The problem with this is that for both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and God’s Own Country, Ammonite is always seen as the lesser of the two so you find yourself watching a new movie and wishing it were as good as an older one.
It’s sad that this pairing has yielded such bland fruit as Ammonite. I like both actresses and I quite like Gemma Jones (Rocketman) appearing here as Winslet’s long-suffering mother who has a porcelain figurine for each of the eight children she’s lost over the years. Watching her clean the tiny curios daily as her only bit of happiness is devastating, the rare bit of true unique emotion Lee has for audiences exploring this dramatized tale he’s imagined. I’d almost rather have seen a fuller version of Anning’s life that detailed how she came to find a passion for what she did, how she was originally rejected by members of the scientific community, and how her work provided the basis for a number of advancements over time. There’s romance in science as well.