Director: Francis Lee
Writer: Francis Lee
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones
Synopsis: In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
Usually, when I write about a film that flies by, it’s a good thing. It is a good thing to me when a 2+ hour film goes by and feels like an hour, keeping me engaged throughout. For a film that is exactly two hours long, it should be a good thing for me to mention that Ammonite felt like it was only an hour long. However, that ended up being a negative for the film, as I look back and wonder what really happened in this story and why it warranted the two-hour runtime.
This is a film that is meant to be a slow build, focusing on the characters and them forming their relationships. However, that does not justify the reasons as to why this film felt like it had no steady pacing at any moment. There is meant to be a sense of time passing between Mary Anning (played by Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (played by Ronan), and yet there is no real sign in the film that the time did pass by. There are scenes that are dragged out for a prolonged amount of time, whilst other moments which are much more engaging are rushed through.
There are a few aspects of this film that were excellently done and kept me engaged throughout. The first thing on that list are the leading performances from both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who elevate the material to another level. The best moments of the film are when they are both on screen, as they bounce off of each other seamlessly and their relationship is so easy to buy into.
There are people who I have already seen talk about this particular sequence, but there is a graphic sex scene that features in this film between Mary and Charlotte. I want to thank Francis Lee for putting this in the film and not shying away from the subject matter, as not many filmmakers would take that risk. In a society where we see heterosexual sex being depicted in most mediums nowadays, it is time to normalize watching lesbian sex in the same format. It is a bold move, but it perfectly shows the relationship of the women at the time and their desires being met, something that clearly neither of them properly had in years.
It was not only that scene that stood out but other fleeting moments that worked so well for me. The set-up for the story and the first meeting between Mary, Charlotte, and her husband Roderick (played by James McArdle) is a strong set-up that helps connect all of the characters naturally. There are also some great moments of humor, particularly at the moment when Mary explains to Roderick what coprolite is whilst he holds it in his hand. These small moments are what make the film work at its best, but sadly there are too few of them to join the story together.
This is a film that focuses heavily on women, making the men feel very flat and stereotypical. I personally did not need an entire scene dedicated to showing that Charlotte’s husband treated her badly. It also became clear that the screenplay had no major plans for the character as soon as he was off the camera. He was simply there to give a reason for Mary and Charlotte meeting up. If he was going to be a major reason why Charlotte had an emotional connection with Mary, I wish there was a plan for his character later on in the film.
This film went by quickly, but I look back on it and wonder what I ended up watching. I struggle to see how this film is two-hours long, with the number of shots there are just of fossils and the dull grey background. The filmmaking itself feels uninspired, with only the sex scene standing out in terms of cinematography and editing. When the film has its moments and focuses on the relationship, that is when the film works for me. I just wish there was more connection between the story to have the same passion as the relationship does and truly communicate to the audience how important this story is. As much as I hate to compare it, it has to be said that there was another lesbian period piece that came out in the past year that did a much better job handling both the relationship and the overall pacing of the narrative. Don’t go into Ammonite thinking you are going to get the same level of connection as Portrait of a Lady on Fire gave us, because it simply isn’t there.