Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in a period piece about a lesbian romance? Say no more, Neon. Ammonite comes from writer-director Francis Lee and is set in 1840s England. Centered on acclaimed, self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning, we see her as she works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. Inspired by the life of Mary Anning, this film is a snapshot of life and not a biopic.
In Ammonite, the days of Mary’s famed discoveries are behind her and so is the credit she got for her discoveries. Now, instead, she hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists to support herself and her ailing widowed mother. Opening with Mary searching along the beach, showcasing the harsh elements she deals with for a small moment of excitement among the bleak and gray seaside, Ammonite’s pace is slow. When Roderick Murchison, a rich tourist, arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European tour, he entrusts Mary with the care of his young wife Charlotte who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. With her husband looking for any reason to throw her away under the guise of treatment, Charlotte has lost her autonomy.
While Mary doesn’t want to take care of Charlotte, since she is dancing on the poverty line, she literally can’t afford to turn him down. But, that doesn’t mean she has to enter her caregiver role without voicing her disdain. Proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, she clashes with her unwanted guest. Charlotte is sheltered and has always been under the thumb of others, particularly the patriarchal system that has pushed her to silence. And Mary is a woman who knows her worth well beyond what she can provide in a traditionally gendered sense; she is a scientist first.
While their personalities are one of the reasons these two women are from different worlds, their social classes make the distance between them even greater. However, as the two grow closer to each other, Mary and Charlotte discover that they can each offer what the other has been searching for: the realization that they are not alone. Given the film’s slow pace, their relationship grows like the waves. It pushes forward and pulls back with ease before it becomes a passionate and all-consuming love affair that, in natural period romance fashion, irrevocably changes them.
Now, to be frank, my description of the film is far more interesting than how the slow pace sets up Charlotte and Mary’s relationship. While it’s not a bad thing to have all the dressings of a period romance, you have to be able to showcase the growth and depth of experiences within them. Oppressive society, classist systems, men stealing your work—it’s all there to make you understand what the relationship is pushing against. That said, in Ammonite, the commentary on what women face overshadows the women themselves, their plight becomes the focus and even then there isn’t a lot of plot development that pushes the characters in dynamic ways.
Ammonite has great potential to be an erotic period piece that showcases the life of a brilliant woman, but instead, it finds itself existing in a sea of period pieces and doesn’t manage to strike enough difference to stand out. While Lee has spoken about not wanting to make a biopic of Mary, a real and brilliant woman with a story to match, that may have served Winslet’s acting talents more than a quiet film that uses sexual intimacy to speed up the pace. In fact, the most interesting moments of dialogue and interaction between Winslet and Ronan come before and after sex.
The film is steamy, to say the least, with explicit sexual encounters. And while these moments are visually worthy of an erotic period piece, they don’t balance out the simple, slow, and bleak story. In fact, it seems that Lee, the writer-director, uses the sex scenes in the film to be the most dynamic elements of the film. Passion and the need to wear prim and proper masks when in the world come in direct opposition and should create an interesting story but Lee seems more preoccupied with showcasing explicit encounters instead of priming the audience for an emotional pay-off when they happen.
Ammonite’s weakness comes from the fact that passion depicted on-screen needs the audience to buy into it. Mary is the same Mary from the first act to the last and Charlotte’s only development is that she goes from sickly to not. There isn’t enough drive from the characters to make you invest in them beyond the pay of well-shot intimacy. This may be because the director is a man, or it may be because he doesn’t understand that erotic films aren’t great just because of the sex but the emotion attached to it. But this feels like an accusation I can’t make given the deft hand with which Lee crafted God’s Own Country, a film that showcased sex, emotion, and the crushing weight of society in such an intense way. In fact, knowing the kind of queer love story that Lee can tell makes the monotony of Ammonite frustrating.
The film ultimately fits into its genre but doesn’t push past it. We know the role the doctor will play, the role the husband will play, and ultimately the way the story will end because we’ve seen it before. This is not bad, but with the caliber of actresses in the lead roles, it’s a waste. At two hours long, the film could have gone further to give audiences more than a film with great sex scenes. The women in the film are shaped by their society so much that they in fact just become set dressings to it. The world they live in is the star and Mary and Charlotte just get to share the spotlight once in a while. Like the setting, Ammonite is cloudy, sleepy, and just what you expect.
Ammonite is in select theaters on November 13, 2020, and Premium On Demand on December 4, 2020.
At two hours long, the film could have gone further to give audiences more than a film with great sex scenes. The women in the film are shaped by their society so much that they in fact just become set dressings to it. The world they live in is the star and Mary and Charlotte just get to share the spotlight once in a while. Like the setting, Ammonite is cloudy, sleepy, and just what you expect.
Kate is co-founder, EIC, and CCO of BWT. She’s also a Certified Rotten Tomatoes Critic, host, and creator of our flagship podcast, But Why Tho? and Did You Have To?. She also manages all PR relationships for comics, manga, film, TV, and anime. She has an MA in Cultural Anthropology and Religious Studies focusing on how pop culture impacts society.