Of all the beaches and shorelines of the world, it’s seemingly the English seaside that’s the most despairing. At least, that’s how it seems in Ammonite, writer-director Francis Lee’s groundless biopic about 19th-century English paleontologist Mary Anning. In terms of sensuality, this is a film that runs through freezing, frothy water with occasional doses of warmth. Yet with that lacking balance, Ammonite does evoke the feeling of blood rushing into frozen limbs after a rainy afternoon, it’s just that the warmth can’t subside, making that tingling sensation feel more like frostbite than titillation.
Strolling along the overcast shores of Lyme Regis, Mary (Kate Winslet) and her dear friend Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) paint a somber picture of stiff-upper lip Victorian repression — until they get to know each other a little better. That’s when the sexual tension ignites, but Lee takes his time getting there, drawing out the characters’ passions with a cold-blooded deliberateness that matches not only the chilly seaside location but also the very English stoicism that permeates the film. Comparisons to another lesbian period piece of late, the masterful Portrait of a Lady on Fire, are seemingly inevitable, but the vitality and richness that Céline Sciamma brought to that tale of women and the sea isn’t found in Lee’s film, making the romance of Ammonite somewhat bloodless even though this film contains more explicit sex scenes than its French counterpart.
There’s actually no written evidence to prove that Anning, who never married or had children, had sexual relationships with women in her lifetime. But she was close with a handful of women, and same-sex “romantic friendships” were widely tolerated in upper-class Victorian England. This was because the all-male medical institutions of the time believed that ladies of breeding barely had sexual feelings at all, let alone for other women. But when an otherwise oppressive society allowed “romantic friends” to share beds, hold hands, and write each other love poetry, who was going to tell these men otherwise? Ammonite fills in the gaps of Mary and Charlotte’s correspondence, making explicit what has long been inferred: that they were actually devote lovers. But first, we labor through a series of long, gloomy silences as Mary slowly learns to tolerate Charlotte, whose husband, Roderick (James McArdle), is paying Mary to take his wife on daily walks in the healing sea air. As it seems that Charlotte is suffering from a bad case of melancholia, seemingly brought on by being trapped in a loveless marriage with an irritatingly entitled blowhard. Roderick is the walking definition of a dabbler, and his fancy has recently turned to paleontology, which is what brought him and Charlotte to Lyme Regis in the winter in the first place. He soon grows bored, however, and relocates to the city, leaving his wife behind.
When compared to Roderick, Mary is knowledgeable and down-to-earth, a gruff, working-class spinster who’s earned the begrudging respect of her male peers. She’s also got emotional walls built up that would take a couple sticks of dynamite to pierce, but Charlotte has time. Nothing but time, in fact. And so, as the oppressive gray skies of midwinter gradually warm into early spring sunshine, so goes the slow melting of Mary’s wounded heart. The chemistry between the two stars is halting to the point of being wobblily; Winslet plays Mary as an iceberg, all glowering disapproval and sinking depths, while Ronan’s Charlotte is a suffocated hummingbird waiting to be freed, at least she is on paper. Lee’s approach to the material is grimly beautiful at times, though. From the sound design, which contrasts the natural world with Victorian timepieces to some of Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography. At the same time, the movie can also just be plain grim and clichéd without much nuance. The film’s most dour one-note cipher is the character of Mary’s mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), a widow who delivers the rote foreshadowing method of coughing blood into a handkerchief.
Even with its rainy-day atmosphere, Ammonite‘s languishing is largely due to the fact that, although the story is driven by Charlotte’s gradual chipping away at Mary’s emotional walls, the person hiding behind both of their façades remains elusive. The longing is somewhat palpable, but the blending of their souls feels washed away into a shrug. And while, toward the end of the film, Ammonite takes an interesting swerve away from a tragedy trope that often comes with gay cinema, a happy ending for Mary and Charlotte is difficult to visualize, because it’s wrapped in a stiffness. Mary and Charlotte’s love story is insulated from the harsher realities of their era, but unlike the idyllic seaside refuge in the aforementioned Portrait of a Lady on Fire, you don’ get the feeling that they are building a utopia together, not even in their hearts. And without this transformative element, Ammonite ends up feeling rather lukewarm or just ice cold. Driven by a cold-blooded intent, Ammonite ultimately suffers from its lacking character psychology and central chemistry, melding it into an one-note, perfunctory romance that lacks a pulse.
Ammonite is currently playing in Select Theaters and will be released on VOD on December 4