There’s two competing elements at play in Ammonite. On the one hand, there’s legitimately very good acting on display. On the other hand, the filmmaking and story leave something to be desired. So, what does that mean? How do you quantify strong performances against a movie that is somewhat lacking? Everyone handles it differently, and sometimes, it just depends. For me, I just couldn’t quite bring myself to give this one a full on thumbs up. That’s not to say that I’m overtly not giving it a recommendation, but with a binary choice between yay or nay, I’m ever so slightly on the nay side of the equation.
Ammonite has a pair of top-tier performances in its back pocket. So, it’s a shame that the surrounding work doesn’t match them. Without question, Kate Winslet‘s leading turn and Saoirse Ronan‘s supporting work are fully realized. They’re tremendous here, giving their all and shining when they’re together. So, it’s a bummer that there are too many scenes with them separate. Beyond that, the story they’re in isn’t actually that interesting. They raise it up, to be sure, but it still falls a little bit short.
To some degree, Ammonite suffers due to the changing times. Years ago, this would have been a slum dunk Oscar nominee, across the board. Now, whether you’re looking at biopics or period dramas, we’ve come to expect more. Maybe it’s not fair to the film, but something so by the numbers like this suffers in comparison.
Set in 1840’s England, the focus is initially on Mary Anning (Winslet), a formerly well-regarded fossil hunter. Now living with her mother Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), she’s no longer looked at as an acclaimed scientist. These days, Mary searches for common fossils on the shore to sell to the tourists who frequent their shop. It’s a meager living, one filled with loneliness. When a wealthy visitor and fan of her work in Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes to her to learn from her, she begrudgingly accepts. He’s so taken by her work, when he has to go out of town, he entrusts Mary with the care of his wife Charlotte Murchison (Ronan). Uninterested in babysitting, the money changes her mind, as well as an interest building deep down in the withdrawn Charlotte.
Spending more time together, Mary and Charlotte are initially like oil and water. Coming from different social classes and having very personalities, it takes a while for them to understand each other. Then, slowly, an intense bond begins to develop, one neither expected. What follows goes from a friendship to a sense of lust, and even love. Of course, it being England in the 1800s, none of this is simple or in the open, leading to potential heartbreak.
Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet deliver the sort of top-notch performances you’ve come to expect from them. Their chemistry together is phenomenal, and easily represents Ammonite‘s high water mark. Ronan gets to come alive throughout the movie, becoming the vibrant soul of the picture. Winslet has rarely been better, keeping so much below the surface. The way they slowly come to each other, including in their eventual sex scene, tells so much, even without much dialogue. While the rest of the cast are fine, they’re under-utilized. Ronan and Winslet are able to elevate their characters on talent alone.
Filmmaker Francis Lee falls short here. Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine never make this a particularly interesting movie, visually. His direction is anonymous and workmanlike, never leaning into the longing and love, or even the lust, on display. Aside from the score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, which is fitting for the mood piece, the technical work here leaves something to be desired. Lee’s writing is more of the issue, though, since the emotional quotient of the flick is solely coming from the cast. What’s on the page and in the dialogue feels fairly stilted, limiting what they can do.
Ammonite works if you’re just here for watching Ronan and Winslet. In that regard, it’s a success. As a full film, however? Not so much. Your mileage may vary, but I was left wishing there was more here than just two strong performances. They deserve all of their praise, without question. The movie, though…alas, not.