‘It’s like you’re trying to be distant’ a frustrated old flame exclaims to fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) as they reminisce on a failed relationship in one of Ammonite’s climactic moments. It’s a sentiment that will feel familiar to the audience by that point, with Francis Lee’s second film keeping them at arm’s length throughout, making for a very cold love story that can’t match the rugged passion of his debut, God’s Own Country.
Anning was a real figure, integral to the growing field of palaeontology in the Victorian era, a self-taught pioneer who walked the since-named Jurassic Coast in search of the remains of ancient beasts. In Ammonite, Lee takes this history, and adds to it a fictionalised love story, with wealthy gentleman Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) leaving his depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s care, with the hope that brisk sea walks and insights into Mary’s work can bring Charlotte out of her ‘melancholia’.
This plot takes a very long time to get going, and yet it still feels relatively sudden when the romance finally kicks into gear. Part of this is down, sadly, to Ronan’s performance. Usually so brilliant, here she’s stuck in a stiff, clammy register that makes it look like she’s entombed in a waxwork of herself, failing to spark chemistry with Winslet. For her part, Winslet is really fantastic, breathing sweary and wilful life into Mary. She expertly, and often wordlessly, communicates Mary’s pain, frustration, joy, and anxiety, which only makes Ronan’s work feel that much more lifeless.
There are still some beautiful moments, but you never quite buy the film’s contention that this is a life-changing love. In fact, the best romantic work is instead done by Winslet and Fiona Shaw, playing Mary’s ex Elizabeth. Their scenes together have a natural spark that is lacking elsewhere and you can sense their years of history floating in the air between them, the kind of unspoken passion that is sorely needed in the Mary-Charlotte scenes. It doesn’t help Ammonite that it naturally draws comparisons to Portrait of a Lady on Fire – period piece lesbian romance about an artisan and a high society lady finding love in man-free isolation – but lacks the ravishing gorgeousness of Celine Sciamma’s film.
That isn’t to say there isn’t a more savage beauty to be found here, though. You can practically feel the chill of the wind and the spray of the sea whenever Mary is out walking, and the sound design is perfect, immersing you in the coastal environment and making Mary’s work all the more tactile. Lee is already a master at bringing out Britain’s natural majesty, giving mystery and power back to locales that could seem mundane in other directors’ hands.
After announcing himself is such brilliant fashion with God’s Own Country, Lee’s follow up film was always going to be burdened with, perhaps unfair, expectations. Sadly, despite doing a lot right and having a top-form Kate Winslet in its corner, Ammonite is underwhelming, failing to conjure the irresistible romance that it needs, unearthing its passions only in fits and starts.