Set in 1840s England, Ammonite tells the story of acclaimed but overlooked paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winselt). Mary works alone, selling fossils to tourists to get by. A chance job offer changes her life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). The two women develop an intense relationship, changing their lives forever.
Ammonite is an atmospheric, artfully shot film. While I’ll admit there were a few too many lingering extreme closeups for my taste – especially in the opening 15 minutes – I can appreciate the craft behind it. Visually, the harshness of Mary’s seaside village contrasts starkly with Charlotte’s society finery. We know immediately that these two characters come from very different worlds. In the end, this visual disconnect ultimately parallels their romantic journey.
Writer/director Francis Lee also takes a refreshing approach to gay period romance. While Mary and Charlotte’s relationship does take place in secret, the film doesn’t display any overt homophobia. Not only is it nice to avoid that negativity entirely, it feels like Lee respecting the audience somehow. He knows we’re smart enough to understand the conventions of the times without beating us over the head with them.
And of course, it probably won’t surprise you to hear Ammonite is well-acted. With Oscar-winner Winslet and Oscar-nominee Ronan heading the film, you can reasonably expect solid performances. (That’s good in general, but especially for Ammonite, which demonstrates a lot of romantic intention through lingering, significant glances. Mary and Charlotte definitely favor action over words.)
Fiona Shaw’s performance is also worth appreciating. Her character – Mary’s ex – gets stuck dealing out a lot of exposition and background info, but Shaw carries it so well you hardly notice.
But Ammonite is a romantic drama, and despite the performances of the leads, the romance somehow falls flat.
I think a lot of reviewers will blame this on the film’s heavy reliance on cheesy tropes. (I’m jealous you’re talking to my ex, even though it’s totally innocent! There’s only one bed… I guess we’ll have to share!) But honestly? I think people watching a romantic drama are TOTALLY down for tropes. (I know I am, anyways.)
But the tropes only work if we already feel the romantic connection and want people to be together. That’s why the real issue with Ammonite’s romance is pacing.
It doesn’t seem like any sparks are flying between Mary and Charlotte outright when they first meet; they don’t have the one-glance-romance of Carol or the competitive wit of Pride & Prejudice. They’re just two people who don’t exactly fit, brought together by circumstance.
Which could still totally work as a romance of the slow burn, unexpected variety! But that’s not what Ammonite does.
Charlotte spends the first third of the film depressed and hardly speaking, then temporarily passed out, sick with a fever. Mary then has to care for her, which would have been a great romantic moment – if they had actually made a romantic connection before Charlotte fell ill. Instead, the film seems to imply most of the romance blossoms while Charlotte is unconscious (?). Everything suddenly moves zero to 100, and we’re now in the middle of a romance we never saw the beginning of. When Mary storms out of a party, mad with jealousy after seeing Charlotte laughing with her ex, it happens about ten minutes after we saw Charlotte regain consciousness and finally speak two consecutive sentences to Mary. I didn’t feel the passion of romance then. I just felt confused.
And that confusion never really resolved itself, at least for me. When Charlotte helps Mary recover a valuable fossil on the beach, I thought ah! Here’s the romantic connection I’ve been waiting for. Why didn’t this scene happen earlier? And – oh, okay. They’re already having sex now.
It feels like Ammonite didn’t know what kind of romance it wanted to be, splitting hairs between slow-burn yearning and passionate connection. And in the end, that leaves the audience wanting.
Ammonite: The Bottom Line
Ammonite has the atmosphere and the acting, but the strange pacing and poorly-used tropes throttle the romance.
Ammonite hits theaters November 13 and premium on demand December 4.