Ammonite‘s trailer was met with some huffs. Many felt as if we had seen it all before: repressed lesbians, period piece, bleak setting. Apparently, there’s too much of this. People will watch countless rom-coms made out of the hollowed shell of another, sure. They’ll see their bazillionth Marvel movie — fun as they are — and enjoy their quirks. But another sad movie about women falling in love? Enough!
The truth is, Ammonite is different from the movies it might get compared to, and it’s certainly not depressing — perhaps to its detriment. In Francis Lee’s romance, Kate Winslet stars as Mary Anning, a borderline hermit living with her mother (Gemma Jones) in a cold house lit by candlelight. She concentrates on her work as a paleontologist, and there’s not much else in her life — no friends or colleagues. This bubble Mary exists in is undoubtedly not far from the reality of many real lesbians during this unenlightened period.
Ammonite is almost weighed down by its premise, which is soggy and bleak. The English seaside skies are solid grey, and Mary is pensive and tired, which you can see in the lines of her distant face. This is a woman unwilling to get close, but unmistakably in need of kinship. Lee throws us out in the cold, knowing we’ll be all the more desperate for the warmth of a flame after we’ve braced for brittle winds. In many ways, Ammonite‘s visuals are a necessity to portray Mary’s predicament: DoP Stéphane Fontaine underscores the barren mental wastelands of being without touch, and the distance put between Mary and everyone else speaks volumes.
Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is dropped on Mary’s doorstep by her husband (James McArdle). She’s suffering from “melancholia” — a diagnosis that was often used to describe women’s poor mental health instead of addressing the sexism that contributed to it. She’s younger, with a naive edge that vastly differs from Mary’s reserved and blunt demeanor. They’re opposites at surface level, but spiritually similar in a way that draws them together.
The affair they partake in is, like many others of its sort, on a ticking clock. Their growing affection is warming, with humor and a nervous slow-burning charm that is exciting to watch. Though some might say there’s a lack of chemistry — especially on Winslet’s part as the quieter character — the difficulty and hesitation in their finding a rhythm appears purposeful. Ronan, as always, is solid — her pale blue eyes saying more than a written sentence could — but Oscar hopes could be dwindled by a script that fails to deliver a fully rounded character or emotional experience.
Lee’s approach is authentic. This is a gay man making a movie about gay love, he’s grounded in their reality and finds footing in the details all too familiar to anyone that’s had to wait for the loudest of signals. His direction is explorative, distracted by details perspective, and loving symbolism. The editing is appropriately choppy, although does straddle the line of that appropriateness. The cracks begin to form in the big picture, though: Lee inexplicably has to work overtime for drama and potency that should have come easy in such an intimate and charged story.
These two actresses — one traveling back to the kind of movies she did before starring in mammoth blockbusters, and the other continuing to develop an immensely impressive filmography considering her age — are special to witness together, but for some reason, the relationship has no piercing quality in the second half of Ammonite. It’s hard to say why; Mary and Charlotte’s evolving intimacy feels true and patiently earned, and the backdrop provides ample tension and stakes, but unfortunately, none of it helps Lee tie his narrative up in a way that is satisfyingly striking.
It’s unfair to compare every lesbian movie to its ilk, but romantic tragedy is an inherent part of LGBT+ history, so when a film (happy ending or otherwise) doesn’t transcend its fiction and allow us to grasp its pain along with its sparks of joy, it’s disappointing.
Despite a lack of effective poignancy that made the likes of Disobedience or Portrait of a Lady on Fire unforgettable and bittersweet, there’s a lot about Ammonite to celebrate: its production design is transportive, the minimal scoring succinct, and the unspoken minutiae will connect with the film’s community. It’s a shame many will leave it wanting more (and maybe wrongly based on expectations set by other lesbian films) because it does almost everything right in forming Mary and Charlotte’s relationship and dealing with the nuances of deep longing. Unfortunately, the marks it doesn’t hit are the ones that would’ve elevated it the most.