From the get-go, comparisons of “Ammonite” to last year’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” were inevitable. A lesbian period romance between a working woman and the woman she is caring for, set at the seaside? There aren’t too many of those. But the comparison really isn’t all that fair, as “Ammonite”—which no, is not nearly as inspired as “Portrait”—is a quiet and passion love story that deserves to be evaluated on its own terms.
“Ammonite,” which is written and directed by Francis Lee, follows Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a paleontologist who spends her days collecting fossils on the coastline in the small Dorset town of Lyme Regis. Mary leads a solitary life—she works alone, and lives only with her aging mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), earning their meager living by selling fossils to tourists. One day, she is approached by a young man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who is traveling Europe with his ill wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), and pays a reluctant Mary to let him watch her work. When it comes time for Roderick to travel to his next location, he decides that Charlotte is not yet fit to accompany him, so he asks Mary to let her stay with her and walk with her by the sea, hoping the distraction will improve her spirits. Mary and Charlotte are initially distant, with Mary too focused on her work, but the women eventually warm to each other and, despite their different personalities, their friendship soon turns into a romance.
It’s initially easy to see why “Ammonite” would be considered too cold of a film. Lyme Regis is gloomy, the atmosphere of Mary’s home is stark, and Mary’s personality is chilly. But the film changes tone along with Mary and Charlotte’s changing relationship. Their eventual love scenes are bathed in the warm lamplight. It’s a slow burn up until then, but Lee, rather than fill his screenplay with dialogue, let’s Winslet and Ronan’s performances do the talking. And they both deliver magnificent performances. Winslet is restrained, but her yearning lingers just under the surface; Ronan is younger and a bit more obviously eager. The buildup involves a lot of longing, meaningful glances that hold more weight than words ever could. It’s in the final act that “Ammonite” struggles to bring it all together, with a not especially satisfying conclusion that leaves a lot up in the air.
Something that some viewers may not be aware of, however, is that Mary Anning was a real person. Now recognized and renowned for her contributions to the field of science in Britain, Mary—who worked throughout the early to mid-1800s—was often not afforded the same opportunities as her male peers, despite her accomplishments. There is little to no known information on her romantic relationships or sexuality, however, causing Lee to come under fire from some critics for portraying her as a lesbian in this film. But we don’t have any more reason to assume that Mary was straight than we do that she was a lesbian, and a film like this starring such high-profile actors as Winslet and Ronan does wonders for queer representation in film. But because the romance is the center of “Ammonite,” the film doesn’t spend as much time on Mary’s career, nor does it emphasize its importance. Hopefully someday, we’ll get to see that part of her story too. In the meantime, “Ammonite” is a quietly beautiful version of what might have been.
“Ammonite” is now playing in select theaters and is available to rent on demand. Runtime: 120 minutes. Rated R.