Hello, everyone! With the traditional fall slate of Oscar bait having mostly disappeared this year due to the pandemic, high-quality art-house films have been in short supply. After watching the trailer for Francis Lee’s period romance Ammonite, starring two of my favorite actresses Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, I had incredibly high expectations for this film. How could I not, after watching Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which also happens to be an absolutely gorgeous period romance featuring a lesbian couple on the seaside? Unfortunately, Ammonite pales in comparison to its predecessor. While visually beautiful, the film is cold to the core, with a tedious plot, vaguely sketched characters, and a mostly passionless romance that lacks realism and chemistry. Even with the stunning British coastline for a setting, and two of Hollywood’s luminaries as its stars, the film fails to do little more than exist and look pretty.
Synopsis: The film follows the budding romantic relationship between Mary Anning, a famed paleontologist, and Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a gentleman fossil collector. After Charlotte’s husband leaves her in the care of Mary so that he can go on a fossil-hunting expedition, the two women slowly strike up a friendship, and soon become lovers. But Mary’s reserved nature makes things difficult, and when Charlotte must return to London, the two women must decide whether or not to continue their relationship.
My thoughts: Ammonite’s premise already makes it a strange film. “Loosely based” on the true story of Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison’s relationship, the film ignores the fascinating true story of Anning’s and Murchison’s lifelong friendship and instead invents a fictional romantic relationship between the two. While there is nothing inherently wrong with creating a film speculating on a historical person’s sexuality, the fact that the film mostly glosses over the two women’s factually documented experiences makes the film seem inauthentic and more like a fan-fiction than historical fiction. A quick glance at each woman’s Wikipedia page shows that both women led complicated and eventful lives, and were accomplished paleontologists that contributed to the emerging field of 19th century paleontology. The story of their friendship, and their discoveries, would make for a rich biopic, but instead, the movie wants to focus on a romance that may have, but probably didn’t, exist.
In focusing on this romance, the film loses sight of the two women at its core. When we first meet Mary, she is living a quiet existence with her aging mother on the seaside, spending her days collecting fossils and selling them to tourists. There is so little dialogue in these first few scenes that any inkling of Mary’s inner thoughts is communicated only through longing gazes out the window. It’s lucky that Kate Winslet has a remarkable ability for expression, since she’s given no support by the script and hardly any help from the cinematography. By the time that Charlotte arrives, we know nothing about Mary besides what the camera will show us, which is mostly scenes of waves crashing on the shore and the white-washed walls of Mary’s cottage.
Then there’s Charlotte, who is even more of an enigma. Her first scenes show her clothed exclusively in black, and her husband’s refusal to sleep with her in one scene, claiming that they’re “not ready to try for another baby,” implies that she’s mourning the death of a child. But implication is the best the viewer will get in this film, as neither Charlotte nor Mary ever confirms this to be the case. I enjoy movies that make the viewers do the work, but usually those films give something in return. In Ammonite’s case, the viewer is forced to infer almost everything about these women’s pasts and internal emotions. Important questions about Charlotte’s depression, her relationship with her husband, Mary’s past, and Mary’s relationship with her mother are never answered. Instead, we’re supposed to project three-dimensional characterizations on to two women whose only avenue of expression is through romantic eye contact. For a movie that’s supposed to be about exploring the emotions of two women, there is very little dialogue dedicated to exploring these women’s emotions.
Rarely do I watch a film and wish that it had more dialogue, but Ammonite suffers from the almost oppressive quality of its silences. Dynamics change suddenly and with no explanation, and the script offers no guidance. Charlotte begins the movie dismissive of Mary, and after an illness, is suddenly appreciative of her, and views her romantically. Mary starts off the film disdaining Charlotte for her upper-crust ways, but after that same illness, is suddenly in love with her. While the life-changing nature of illness is a common movie trope (*see Anne Shirley realizing her love for Gilbert after his brush with death), it wasn’t enough for me to see their romance as realistic. Why, for instance, is the viewer expected to believe that an upper-class British woman would so openly attempt to romance a woman who is practically a stranger to her, especially since open homosexuality was at the time considered to be unnatural and sinful? Portrait of a Lady on Fire made this believable because it was clear from the first moment how much chemistry the two leads had, and how clear the sexual tension was from the beginning. Ammonite, in contrast, does the exact opposite by having its two leads exhibit nothing towards each other besides icy cold disdain. When the romance does begin, with tentative hand holding, a brush on the shoulder, and the lacing up of a corset, there is affection, but still no passion.
The issue lies in the fact that Anning’s character is so reserved that she seems unapproachable. Why is she like this? The only insight the viewer gets is from a conversation between Anning and her former lover (presumably, since this is never explicitly said), where her lover blames the dissolution of their relationship on Anning’s coldness. All it would have taken was a few lines, or even a scene, explaining why Anning holds herself so distantly from her loved ones, but this never happens. We also never learn what Anning likes about Charlotte, or why her disdain for her so suddenly transforms into romantic interest. The women have little in common despite their gender, and any shared interests they might have are only vaguely sketched out. Similarly, while Charlotte is warm, energetic, and the clear initiator in their relationship, we never get an explanation as to why Charlotte chooses to pursue a relationship with Anning, especially since her relationship with her husband, while fraught, seems to have once been a happy one. Romances don’t grow in a vacuum, and the film’s disinterest in providing any plausible building blocks for the two women’s relationship left a bad taste in my mouth. Because if Ammonite isn’t really about these women, then what is it about? Is it just a vehicle to show a lesbian romance to earn brownie points, or a way of riding the coattails of the queer romance genre now that those films are trendy?
Usually in romance films, the “first kiss” is a climactic moment, breaking 45 minutes of steamy sexual tension and romantic development. But in Ammonite, the sex scenes seem like more of a plateau than a peak in the story. They don’t add any insight into the character’s deepest thoughts, and they don’t cause anything new to happen in the plot. Like the romance itself, they are more of a distraction. Because, in the end, nothing really changes for these characters. Charlotte goes back to London, Mary stays in her hometown, and that’s that. The final sequence of the movie attempts to sprinkle some ambiguity into their relationship by adding some “will they/won’t they” to the script, but the movie ends on an unsatisfying note. After nearly 120 minutes of run time, the viewer has learned almost nothing about the two protagonists, and they have learned almost nothing about each other. We don’t understand the characters enough to determine whether they will or won’t. The women are as ossified as the fossils that Mary studies.
Speaking of fossils, the paleontology aspect of this film is completely underutilized. While Portrait of a Lady on Fire used painting as a vehicle to explore the two women’s discovery of each other, Mary’s work as a paleontologist seems like an after-thought. If she wasn’t a real person, I would think that the writer added it in as a “quirky” hobby for color. The viewer never learns why Mary enjoys paleontology so much, or how she feels about the fact that her gender precludes her from joining professional societies or taking full credit for her work. In my mind, I see a movie that deftly explores Mary’s complex relationship with her profession and her minority religion, as well as her friendship with Charlotte. Instead, the movie wants to focus on a passionless romance with no conclusion. Both Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison were real people with dynamic lives, but the film reduces them to wispy sketches and takes away their voices. It’s disappointing, dissatisfying, and ultimately, a little distasteful. I only hope the next movie to tell these women’s stories does it better.