Ammonite movie review: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan film undone by its obviousness and sterility
Ammonite suffers from a slowness, that intends to mimic the pace of life, but does not build or culminate into anything profound or satisfying.
Director Francis Lee loves the wind. It braised the love between two gruff men in his previous film, God’s Own Country, where they puddled together in dirt, pushing and punching each other till the clothes came off.
In Ammonite, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the wind is joined by the roiling waves to create a soundscape, one which allows for minimal dialogue to not feel minimal. You do not notice the absence of speech because there is always some noise brewing in the 19th century seaside town of Lyme Regis. There is also an obviousness with which this soundscape is utilised, with quick, abrupt cuts from the outdoor sonic kerfuffles to the dusty silence indoors, or from complete cloistered silence to the swirl of noisy nature outside.
Ammonite is the story of the famous British paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). Mary was famous for the fossil beds she found on the cliffs and beaches of Lyme. Ammonite is the word specifically used for these Jurassic period fossils, with their intricately-frilled suture lines that whirl outward like a hypnotist’s wheel. Here, Lee gives us the enormity of this simple expedition, climbing slippery small mounds, wading through rocks to excavate the chosen one with minimal tools, and later to dust, chisel, and polish it till its ready to be tucked into glass cases in the British Museum in far off London. The clap-clap of crabs and slow, conscious movements of dung beetles are recorded with a similar sincerity by Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine.
Mary runs a shop of curios and fossils for the tourist crowd, inherited from her father, taken over by her ailing mother who suffered eight miscarriages. For each of the miscarriage, she keeps small porcelain toys that she cleans every day. When anyone else tries to clean it, she snatches them away, “They are mine! My babies!” We are told that she has had 10 children, including Mary, and this leaves one child unaccounted for throughout the narrative.
Into Mary’s life comes Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). The wife of a geologist, she is left in the reluctant care of Mary Anning, while the husband trapezes through Europe in search of fossils. The sea is supposed to be good for Charlotte’s health — she is suffering from “melancholia." When we first see her, she is shy, quiet, and sullen. But in a conversation, we are told that she was once “bright, funny, and clever." A haunting miscarriage hovers over their lives too. When she sees a child, she plays with its little fingers. A scene later, she is weeping on the floor, the coal bucket she was carrying upturned.
Soon, Charlotte and Mary play foils to each other, each helping the other to open up. Charlotte’s impenetrable gaze that, at first, looks unbothered and uncaring for anything unrelated to fossils, is shown to later be a facade; what we thought was impenetrable, was actually just willful withholding. When she meets a former lover who compliments her hair, she refuses to even acknowledge it, but as soon as the lover is out of the frame, Mary touches her hair to feel if the appreciation thrown at it is indeed true, is indeed nice. While Charlotte’s health improves immediately — she becomes chirpy, questioning, sunny — Mary takes longer to warm up. It is only about an hour into this two-hour film that we first see her crack open a smile.
The love between them is speculative, but what is not is the role of women in the making of Mary’s career. There is an understandable impulse to read more into profound same-sex friendships of previous centuries, and Lee is merely giving voice to it. It has been argued by a distant relative of Mary Anning that this representation of her as a lesbian is irresponsible, because it is grounded in fantasy. Can fantasy not be respectful? Or asked differently, do biopics need to be respectful?
By having Mary and Charlotte dig their faces into each other’s private parts, moaning just loud enough to be heard over the waves, are we muddying the line of respect? Is sex irresponsible? Is same-sex sex irresponsible?
I saw in this role a shadow of her work in The Reader. There too, she is moved into feeling by a younger lover. But what exists there, which lacks here, is not just the chemistry, but the love. Charlotte and Mary are unable to create what is required to make a story worth speculating for, and this is made very clear towards the end when we realise that Charlotte is in love with a version of Mary that just does not exist. The urge to rip at each other’s bodices is there, but there is something lacking in the way the gaze stacks up on one another. The slowness of the narrative very soon begins to feel infertile.
In a scene Mary leaves Charlotte at a party, because Charlotte is immediately the center of attention there, leaving Mary in the brooding periphery. At home, when Charlotte confronts Mary about why she left her there, she also tries to convince her that indeed she was the most fascinating and most beautiful person in the room, adjectives in that order. But we do not believe Charlotte, because of how she left Mary out to dry, not even looking back over her shoulder at the party to see if she is fine. To love a recluse is to care for them more in social situations. Similarly, in the scene where Charlotte charges on a long monologue to express how hardworking Mary is to a potential haggling customer, the truth in her words is buried by its hyperbolic performance.
There is something so surface level about these dialogic interventions. It portends an obviousness which undoes the whole point of a “slow film," which is to unravel at the pace of life, and to house in it the contradictions and meanderings of it. The very first scene, in fact, is a warning of this simplicity. It takes place at the British Museum. We are shown the hands of a cleaner scrubbing the floor triangular tile by tile. She is hushed to the side by men carefully carrying a fossil on a gurney. As the fossil is placed under the glass casing, ready for exhibition, the label which initially reads “Found by Miss Mary Anning” is replaced by “Presented by H. Hoste Henley." In one fell swoop, the class and gender disparity of the world is laid bare with an obviousness that is easy to note, but more often than not, difficult to feel.
Ammonite is now available in India on BookMyShow Stream.
Prathyush Parasuraman writes for Film Companion. He also writes a weekly newsletter on culture and cinema at prathyush.substack.com.
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