Ideas that look good on paper don’t always work out in reality. Even when it seems like all the elements are there the end result isn’t always a winner. Would that such were not the case, would that everything went brilliantly; it just doesn’t always happen. This is the sad truth of “Ammonite,” a new movie starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, written and directed by Francis Lee.
Based on a real person (although there is no evidence of the relationship at the center of the movie) and taking place in 1840s England, the movie finds Winslet as Mary Anning, a paleontologist working in Lyme Regis and struggling to get by. Her future may have looked bright at one point, but that time was long ago. Mary lives with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), a woman who has lost eight children and a husband. Most of Molly’s solace comes from doting on little animal figurines which act as stand-ins for her children. Most of Mary’s solace comes from… well, from goodness knows where.
Mary is sad and hard and cold. It might not be accurate to say that she’s angry at the world and the way she’s been treated, but she is certainly closed off from it. Winslet gives us all of this with such immense power. It is clear that there is something emotional underneath, but Mary’s hard exterior does its best to kill it.
Enter Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison. She is deposited in Lyme Regis by her husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who hires the unwilling Mary to watch over the unwell Charlotte. A love story unfolds.
Ronan is just as good as Winslet here. The supporting cast, which also includes Fiona Shaw as one of Mary’s former friends, is solid as well.
The problem? “Ammonite” is often as hard and cold as Mary’s exterior, as the town of Lyme Regis, as the fossils Mary finds on the shore or digs out from nearby. It seems to relish in giving us, over and over again, these scenes in which Mary’s hard exterior shows cracks but can’t be broken, where we get an inkling that Mary is waiting on some bit of magic to unlock her, even if she won’t admit it to herself.
One can read on Wikipedia (or a myriad of other places), about Ammonoidea but, essentially, it’s a group of extinct marine molluscs. Mary finds these on the shore, fossilized, and the film would very much have us understand that there’s an analogy here (see the movie’s title). Mary is just like the ammonite or the ammonite is just like Mary or they’re just like one another. There’s a hardness to them. They may look rough and cold on the outside, but there’s a beautiful something there underneath. I could continue, but the point is made.
It isn’t a bad metaphor, it just doesn’t go very far and the movie doesn’t have much more to offer than putting it out there. The relationship that forms between Mary and Charlotte is dealt with in sensitive fashion and it is great to see unfold. However, it, too, doesn’t go very far and the movie doesn’t have much more to offer than putting it out there.
There is a lack of exploration of both Mary’s work and her romance with Charlotte. Instead, we are treated to very surface level depictions of each. It is as though seeing them uncover a great bit of ammonite or make love will substitute for the depth needed for us to know and feel for them.
The sets are lovely and the costumes feel real and there’s some great music in the film. That’s not enough either. It, absolutely, is a part of it, but the parts don’t add up to the required sum.
With a great cast and a solid question about how we navigate love and loss and living in a world that doesn’t accept us, “Ammonite” has so many of the elements that are important to make a successful movie. It seems like a great idea on paper but plays out far differently in reality. It isn’t that the message is unimportant either, it just that it’s not a terribly compelling film. Horribly, it so often feels like it is right on the cusp of excellence, on the cusp of immortality, but, like Mary so often does, it then just retreats into its shell, offering a glimpse inside but keeping us at arm’s length.
photo credit: Neon