AMMONITE movie poster | ©2020 Neon

AMMONITE movie poster | ©2020 Neon

Rating: R
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Alec Secareanu
Writer: Francis Lee
Director: Francis Lee
Distributor: Neon
Release Date: November 13, 2020

AMMONITE has a protagonist not seen every day, in film or in life: an 1840s female British paleontologist. Ammonite is also a kind of prehistoric cephalopod, now found only as a fossil. Written and directed by Francis Lee, AMMONITE is also a quiet lesbian romance, set mostly on and near a rocky beach, with the pounding of the waves ever in our ears.

Virtually the first thing we see is a fossilized ichthyosaurus being put on display in a museum. The specimen was found by scientist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a real-life historical figure.

Mary, we soon learn, is a taciturn loner who spends her time searching for fossils in forbidding weather under the cliffs by the sea in Lyme Regis, on the east coast of England. Mary’s mother (Gemma Jones) seems less than thrilled about her daughter’s profession, but likes the money it brings. The two women live in back of the shop where Mary sells her lesser finds.

Mary is a paradox, simultaneously renowned for her expertise and ignored by the men in her field. When scientist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) appears on her doorstep with his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), Mary is inclined to shoo him away. However, when Roderick offers to pay to accompany Mary on her fossil-hunting, and to buy a large ammonite she has just uncovered, she can scarcely refuse.

Roderick thinks of marital sex as only for procreation. When Charlotte attempts to snuggle with him in bed, he snaps, “It’s not the right time to make another baby,” and moves away. Clearly, this is not a happy marriage, at least, not anymore. Charlotte is grieving the loss of a child.

Heading off on an expedition, Roderick pays Mary to take Charlotte with her in his absence. Neither woman has any enthusiasm for this at first, but when Charlotte winds up staying at the Anning residence, friendship slowly blooms. And then the relationship becomes something more.

Director/writer Francis Lee has constructed AMMONITE so that we understand what Charlotte sees in the prickly Mary. Here is a woman with knowledge, skill, and independence, all things that Charlotte admires and craves for herself. Furthermore, the two women recognize in one another a vulnerability and loneliness that is not seen by the world. Finally, the actors playing them are extremely attractive, so little wonder that they wind up lovers.

The sex is fairly explicit – we never have any doubt as to who is doing what when – which illustrates the balance of power in the relationship and the bond between them. However, Mary’s reluctance to say much of anything, combined with differences in finances and class, cause even more problems than Charlotte’s marital status.

AMMONITE has stark physical beauty, with a color palette dominated by the grays, blacks, browns and blues of the beach. This is echoed in sets and costuming, with only Charlotte in whites and greens. There are changes, but not jarring ones, when the action moves away from Lyme Regis. Filmmaker Lee has taken great care to make the film immersive, both visually and aurally.

Winslet is excellent as the meticulous, grouchy, passionate Mary. As Charlotte, Ronan goes persuasively from waifish sorrow to radiant joy. Jones is entirely convincing as Mary’s watchful but silent parent, and Fiona Shaw shines in several scenes as someone who knows Mary well.

We can’t absolutely root for the relationship between Mary and Charlotte. It’s lopsided, because Charlotte loves Mary for all her qualities, whereas Mary seems to love Charlotte mainly because she needs someone to love. When conflict comes, it’s because neither woman seems able to imagine the other’s point of view. They unlock each other without seeing each other fully.

AMMONITE is artful and intelligent and handsome (and sexy). It’s even memorable. But, perhaps because it wants to retain a sense of restraint and ambiguity, it just misses being truly moving.

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