Even if Ammonite (Grade: B-) didn’t fall under the shadow of Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, it still wouldn’t be very much fun. The trailer for Neon’s latest foray into Sapphic historical romance stirred up both excitement and skepticism on social media when it launched at the end of August, raising the discourse-bait question: What’s up with all the lesbian period pieces? It’s this writer’s opinion that it’s not whether the characters can text each other but the passion behind the filmmaking that counts—although setting a film in the past does seem to increase the likelihood of the “bury your gays” trope that’s ruined many a movie date over the years. Regardless of how its story arc bends, however, Ammonite is too pallid to really get your blood flowing.
Kate Winslet leads the cast as Mary Anning, the 19th-century paleontologist whose romantic life in the film has been invented from whole cloth by writer-director Francis Lee. There’s no evidence to prove that Anning had sexual relationships with women in her lifetime. But she was close with a handful of women, and the film’s 1840s setting was the heyday of “romantic friendship,” the idea that intense bonds where women declared their undying love and passion for one another were a perfectly normal part of life. (The concept of a fixed, inborn sexual orientation wasn’t popularized until the early 20th century; for more on this history, see Lillian Faderman’s book Odd Girls And Twilight Lovers.) That’s all background, however, as Lee’s film doesn’t delve into the complexities of changing relational mores in the Victorian era any more than it does Anning’s contributions to the field of geology.
So what does Ammonite offer, then? Long, gloomy silences, for one, as Winslet tolerates the presence of Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, a noblewoman whose irritatingly entitled husband is paying Mary to take his wife on daily walks in the restorative sea air. (She’s got a bad case of mansplaining-induced melancholia, you see.) These take place under oppressive grey skies that gradually warm into sunshine along with the slow melting of Mary’s icy, wounded heart. Both Winslet and Ronan give the best performances they can, given the film’s watery emotional palette: Winslet plays the gruff, pants-clad, working-class spinster, and Ronan the listless lady with sunken cheeks waiting to be freed from her gilded patriarchal cage.
Mary’s hard-nosed practicality matches not only with the film’s chilly seaside location but also a very English stoicism that permeates Ammonite. Compared to the vitality and richness of Céline Sciamma’s tale of women and the sea, the romance here is somewhat bloodless, even though this film contains more (and more explicit) sex scenes than its French counterpart. It’s all of a piece with Lee’s approach to the material, which is grimly beautiful at times: Take the sound design, which contrasts the untamed sounds of the natural world with the ticking of prim Victorian timepieces. At other times, it’s just plain grim, and clichéd to boot. (Yes, this film does have a scene where a character coughs into a handkerchief, pulls it away from their mouth, and sees blood.)
Rainy-day atmosphere of the piece aside, Ammonite’s listlessness 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 facades remains elusive—another poor contrast to Sciamma’s film, which peers directly into its characters’ souls. In the last third of the film, Ammonite takes an interesting (and possibly principled) swerve away from your most pessimistic predictions for a period lesbian romance, evoking a very modern conflict between career and love as it does so. The problem is, Mary hasn’t shown much passion for her career up to that point, except for when doing so serves the film’s romance. It makes sense for her to be reserved. The film, on the other hand, could be a little more vocal in its passions.