I don’t know for sure if Ammonite is simply a romance. The marketing around it is doing everything it can to tell me it is, but I feel as if writer/director Francis Lee has created something else here. It’s a slow and quiet drama, guided by a steady hand, about two vastly different but equally isolated women finding company in one another. From beginning to end, I would find myself drawn into Lee’s sensibilities and his grip on the film’s atmosphere, but just as consistently, the script would then back away and maintain a cold distance.
Two Unique Performances, But Something’s Missing
Kate Winslet shapes real-life British paleontologist Mary Anning as a woman tired of what the world has done to her dreams and aspirations. She spends her days digging and looking for fossils, but there is always an air of defeat looming over her. She doesn’t walk along the beach, she trudges. It’s one of Winslet’s more emotionally restrained performances, but it’s done with great care and sense of timing. Perhaps some of this should be credited to Lee as well.
Meanwhile, Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison is a woman with great fragility, so damaged by a personal tragedy that she spends most of her days asleep in bed. For better or for worse, the script translates that to making Ronan quiet most of the time; certainly, a departure for her.
When I look at them individually, I clearly see two unique and nuanced performances. When I see them together, however, things don’t take shape until about an hour in. This is largely because the script doesn’t give the two characters much dialogue to work with to develop a chemistry, at least not until we’ve really settled into Lee’s thoughts.
On paper, Ammonite doesn’t seem to build to anything for its characters. There’s little anticipation, expectation, or hope for where the story is going. The film plays like a series of moments. Each moment is well-realized and carefully crafted, but a lot of them just stand on their own, rather than lead to the next and build on top of the next.
If you squint, however, you could see how the story could’ve led to something truly climactic. A story beat occurs within the last fifteen minutes of the film, where you could say both characters are at their absolute lowest point, and all I can say about it is I wish it happened a whole lot sooner. The film suddenly escalated and became even more interesting, and it’s about to end. It all comes down to structure and pacing. It makes Ammonite a cold, distant viewing that rewards the viewer in sporadic intervals.
And Yet It Still Stirs Me
And yet, during those intervals, the film works beautifully.
Even though Charlotte communicates and reaches out to Mary throughout the second act of the film, it is clear they are of completely different worlds.
I believe this is Ammonite’s greatest strength: how the two women handle that wall between them. Mary sees it and barely tries to budge it. Why try? She’s lived with those walls her whole life, put in place by men and other societal forces beyond her control. Charlotte, a younger woman who has lived her whole life on the other side, refuses to see that the wall exists. She just doesn’t want to be alone. Deep down, Mary feels the same.
And so… when the two finally accomplish something together. When the two finally move forward, when there is progress between them, and the score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann sneaks in, the film starts to work its magic.
Ammonite: It Will Find a Loving Audience
At times, Ammonite can be frustrating and still too distant to completely appreciate. I see a tale of loneliness and how that takes many forms within social classes. I see two women who deal with that loneliness in opposing ways, who just happen to converge right here, right now. But I also see two great performances that don’t ever truly ignite a spark.
Despite my additional issues with the film’s structure and pacing, I still want to love it. I want to love it because I know Lee, Winslet, Ronan, and all the cast and crew poured their hearts and souls out into this. Every scene shows.
In the end, I do think back to Lee’s beautiful handling of his moments that are so fragile that a wrong glance would render them lost. I think back to the musical score and the sounds of the windy beach and the creaking wood of old buildings. After the trailers, the posters, the Oscar campaigns, and the constant billing of what Ammonite is, I am confident that it will find the right audience.
Did you see Ammonite? What did you think of the film? Share below!
Ammonite is now playing in theaters and will be released on Premium On Demand December 4th, 2020.
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