Francis Lee’s sophomore effort sees him bolstered by a bigger budget and higher calibre of cast. Trading the Yorkshire farmlands for the Dorset coast in during the 19th Century as it tells the story of palaeontological pioneer Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) Covering her work and her romance with geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), with only a few details embellished. In reality Murchison would have been twenty years older than Ronan at the time and there’s no evidence that her and Anning’s relationship went beyond friendship. However, in presupposing a Lesbian romance between the two women, Lee cements his reputation as a capable filmmaker, able to deftly craft landscape into mood.
In this case turning Lyme Regis into a grey atmosphere of hardship. Where every element is smeared with the mud and sweat of hard labour. It is an environment in which Winslet’s Mary Anning thoroughly belongs. As a hard-bitten and weary woman, resolutely committed to work she seemingly takes no joy in. Hers is a hard life but filled with responsibility. A perfect contrast to Ronan’s Charlotte, who bears all the finery of wealth and privilege but devoid of colour or detail. A personification of empty luxury.
It’s this emptiness in Charlotte’s life that provides the perfect contrivance to place her in Anning’s company. Suffering from melancholia her husband (James McArdle, channelling brilliantly understated douchebaggery), abandons her to the coast. When depression develops into sickness Anning becomes her reluctant full-time nurse.. Allowing them the time together required to penetrate Anning’s stony exterior.
That Lee makes this a believable romance is a testament to his grasp of physical intimacy and the considerable talents of the leading ladies. There’s an undeniable sense of yearning as they become closer and closer. A combination of charged looks and tentative physical contact. It’s a good thing that these qualities are present too, as the writing offers nothing to add the vital personal connection to their relationship.
Yes, it seems that Lee’s penchant for minimalist dialogue and focus on atmosphere has robbed the characters of any chance to connect beyond the physical. There’s nothing to suggest what draws Anning and Charlotte together beyond their attraction. No exchange of ideas or intellect. No chemistry to convince us that these two people belong together. As Mary Anning, Winslet casts a remote figure; unwilling to engage or endear herself to others. Her attraction to Charlotte then, feels just that, a physical desire. They share an emotional moment or two but nothing to suggest that Mary would open herself up to Charlotte. It’s a crucial omission, especially in a film that seeks to wring as much sadness out of their separation as possible. Ammonite seems to be operating on the assumption that we are watching an epic doomed love story when Mary and Charlotte’s time together could easily resemble a casual fling.
Without a sense of rapport between the two lovers there is nothing to alleviate the misery that permeates Ammonite’s aesthetics. No catharsis to their coming together, no emotional weight to their divide. It compounds the harshness of Lee’s atmosphere, making the film unrelenting from the misery around Mary’s life. Making it almost comical whenever Fiona Shaw enters as Mary’s amiable ex, and suddenly Lee seems to discover his colour palette.
After the stunning success of God’s Own Country Lee has produced a thoroughly middling love story. One with admirable performances and commitment to mood but hardly a tale for the ages. Mary Anning stans will have to wait as her truly great biopic remains to be made.