Watching Ammonite is a dry, muted experience, and sparks fail to ignite for the forbidden lovers. Much like the fossils and bones unearthed in the film, it lacks any real color and shows the impression of life rather than the act of living. Told in close-ups but not intimately, the film attempts to chart the developing attachment of two fragile, submerged women. However, this understated approach leaves two great actors without characters and genuine emotion to navigate.
Under her husband’s naïve assumption it can cure her melancholia, Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) is the obligated apprentice of Mary Anning (Winslet)’s lonely and submerged paleontologist. The bulk of the film centers on this relationship, with Mary’s guidance of an ailing Charlotte. Their relationship feels more simplified than earned. Winslet carefully underplays Mary’s passive life with a wise understanding. Ronan is the highlight here; she animates Charlotte’s flowering evolution with enraptured tenderness despite the formless narrative. Yearning desire striking her pale face, standing in stark contrast to Winslet’s subtle seething exasperation. Fiona Shaw is a scene-stealing delight as Elizabeth Philpot, confidant to Mary. In a film that withholds emotion to reservation, Elizabeth’s sterling third act monologue reduces the decidedly stoic Mary to tears.
Francis Lee’s directionless filmmaking forces the talented performers to fill in the blanks, but they cannot build chemistry. The leniently used music and prosaic art direction take a back seat so as not to draw attention away from the characters, who are struggling to define themselves. Mary and Charlotte’s relationship unfolds almost entirely via long glances, with the audience forced to glean meaning without the benefit of the two forbidden lovers from speaking their truth. This underwritten nature is too significant a detriment to overcome, with the characters barely standing out against the drab aesthetic. The film ends on a quiet note of solidarity, which is emblematic of the overall flaws. Ammonite should have been a ravaging story of shredding repression for love but feels too choked and airless to warm our hearts.