Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw
By Nicole Ackman
With a starry cast and a fascinating premise, “Ammonite” has garnered much attention from the moment it was announced. The period drama is written and directed by Francis Lee and loosely inspired by the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning. The film revolves around the romance between Anning, as played by Kate Winslet, and Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan. The film has already suffered from comparisons to last year’s beautiful “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” another period drama lesbian romance. However, even without the juxtaposition, “Ammonite” is restrained and quiet to the point of dreariness and its muted, grey color palette seems to match the dampness of the film.Mary Anning is an early paleontologist who walks the coasts of Lyme Regis, looking for fossils. She struggles with not being accepted by the scientific community and the poor health of her mother (Gemma Jones). A well-meaning but annoying gentleman (James McArdle) with an interest in science arrives in town with his wife Charlotte and asks Mary if he can accompany her on her fossil hunting. When he heads off on his travels, he leaves his wife to spend time with Mary and the two soon develop a close relationship. Unfortunately, “Ammonite” is a prime example of a film based on real events that is significantly less interesting than the true story. Anning was a paleontologist and fossil collector who lived in Lyme Regis her entire life from 1799 to 1847. Her findings shaped beliefs about prehistoric life and included the first full ichthyosaur skeleton. She was kept from the scientific community because of her gender and religion and struggled financially her entire life. While she was well-known in scientific circles, she often didn’t get credit for how much she accomplished. The film does a decently good job of portraying Anning, though there’s no clear evidence that she was a lesbian. What Lee chose to do with the figure of Murchison is frustrating. She was a geologist eleven years Anning’s senior who was married to fellow geologist Roderick Impey Murchison. She traveled widely with her husband, making sketches of nature and collecting fossils. She is believed to have contributed significantly to her husband’s career. On one of her trips, she contacted malaria and suffered from complications of it her entire life. She and Anning did meet and became friends. The film doesn’t shy away from the romance between its two leads and it even includes several extended sex scenes. However, it’s more effective when it’s working as a character study than as a romance. The attraction between the two to spark the romance isn’t clear in the early parts of the film, making it a bit difficult to believe. Whatever the film’s flaws are, it has two fantastic performances at its center. It’s a very unglamorous part for Winslet; she spends much of the movie muddy and disheveled. And yet, it’s the best performance from her for years and so impressive in its restraint. Ronan also plays very much against type as Charlotte is described as “like a shadow” as she grieves the loss of her child. Ronan is lacking her typical spirit for much of the film and appears frail and delicate in a way that an audience wouldn’t expect from her. Her performance is emotive and mesmerizing. It’s just a shame that the two don’t fit together better. One unexpected highlight of the film is its sound work, particularly with the sounds of waves crashing on the shore and pencil on paper. The design of the film overall is splendid and highlights the coarseness of life during this time period. The costumes, by Michael O’Connor, are impressive though not showy. Charlotte’s black mourning ensemble and the bonnets are the best work, well complimented by the hairstyles done on Ronan. The film has much that it wants to say about women’s emotional and physical labor, opportunities for smart women during this time, and relationships. It’s frustrating to know how much more interesting the real women it’s based on were compared to the characters that we see on screen. While “Ammonite” is drawing unfavorable comparisons to “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” you don’t even have to look further than this year to find more compelling period drama lesbian romances like “Summerland” or “The World to Come.” Luckily, Winslet and Ronan give powerful enough performances to make it worth seeing even though it will likely leave you cold.