In the windswept, dreary coastal English town of Lyme Regis lives Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a paleontologist who searches on the muddy beaches for fossils such from prehistoric creatures that gives Ammonite its name. Living with her mother (Gemma Jones), the two run a tourist friendly shop peddling tiny rocks to those wanting to have a tiny sense of wonder.
In her youth Mary found a particularly spectacular specimen, a nearly intact ichthyosaur, that’s on display without crediting the discoverer at the national museum. Her legacy erased in order to keep the lights on at home, she has spent the rest of her life into middle-age searching for something nearly as spectacular to bring a spark to her increasingly dour life.
When Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop, full of brim and enthusiasm about the process of discovery, he’s joined by his sickly and melancholic new bride Charlotte (Saorise Ronan). Frail and fancy-dressed, she stumbles along the rocky coastline while Mary, wearing a dress with suitable slacks underneath to traverse the terrain, bounds about looking for the remains of ancient creatures.
As Roderick goes off on his own journeys he leaves Charlotte behind for recuperative purposes, hiring Mary to be a guide of sorts into her world. From there, the connection deepens into something far more personal, with the two briefly finding in the arms of each other escape from the mundane and restrictive aspects of their regular lives.
Lee’s script sets up this novelistic situation with a stark and deliberate fashion, each step unfolding with little in the way of narrative surprise. As the warmth between the two grows in small yet inevitable ways it feels like a kind of romantic perambulation, a kind of gentle journey akin the to walks along the beach. The result at times vacillates between the moving and frustrating, as it dilutes whatever connection these two characters are supposedly sharing under the burden of the austere storytelling. Similarly, when sparks truly do fly it feels forced, as if the rush of thrusting bodies is meant to deliver a catharsis that hasn’t fully been earned.
Winslet’s distance performance is perfectly in keeping with the tone of the film, her dour and emotional reticence perfectly in keeping with the film’s grey, damp and chilly presentation of the sea-side life. Ronan’s shift from miserable housewife to newly aroused companion is a more mixed bag, though from a character’s perspective her draw towards the novel experiences with her new friend, combined with her obliviousness that borders on narcissism, makes the doomed relationship feel more true than some of the more torrid moments.
The underdeveloped connection between Mary and a neighbour Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw) draws subtle lines of jealousy and past connections, but it dances around the point with such awkwardness that we as an audience are left further outside. The point is clear from the outset – the relationship between women is so secret that it’s made dangerous – but beyond the obvious there’s little to draw us in. Given Mary’s own sullen ways, there’s no real sense at play differing between burning jealousy and simple heartbreak, making the whole affair feel all the more hit-and-miss.
Along with a literally tall, dark and handsome Dr Lieberson (Alec Secareanu) that provides the film some suitably awkward moments of courtship, along with the truly hoary cliché of a woman coughing up blood into a handkerchief to denote that she’s dying, the tropes at play in Lee’s film feel less familiar than lazy. Even its closing shot, meant to evoke meaning and a kind of understanding, feels lazy and misplaced, as if all that we’ve experienced has resulted in little more than a stale-mate.
Still, some may be drawn to this tale, ideally not simply because of the titillation from seeing these two fine lead actors engaged in onscreen throes of passion. Like the fossils encrusted in rock there’s a core aspect of this film that’s certainly worth digging out, it’s just not entirely excavated through its execution, still trapped in its austere and distanced style. Lee’s film lacks the precision of a Barry Lyndon or the exquisitely intense gaze of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, making Ammonite’s deliberate pace and chilly characters feel little more than trinkets in a sea-side store – fine to look at, but little more.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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