Director Francis Lee made a fantastic impression with his feature debut GOD’S OWN COUNTRY (2017) a few years ago. That was a stunning, earthy movie, swept in the Yorkshire countryside and masculine tensions. Acting as both a feminine counterbalance and a continuation of some similar themes, AMMONITE (2020) is Lee’s second feature, and it doesn’t quite soar as high. It has sincerity and grand ambitions, but it never reaches its stride.
AMMONITE is not the gushing romance one may expect. Instead it a slow, dry movie. It depicts characters who are both nervous and serious. On the surface, AMMONITE is a love story between two women, set in nineteenth century England. Specifically it follows noted paleontologist Mary Anning and a young Charlotte Murchison, who became a respected geologist. The story is highly fictionalized, and to an extent the characters could have been anonymous, rather than real people. Though AMMONITE is not just a film of love. It is also one of fossils, and the wonder they can inspire. It is a film of hardship and the ways one can find a fleeting sense of purpose, whether through love or work.
Kate Winslet takes the lead role of Mary, and Saoirse Ronan plays Charlotte. It is a wonderful to see the pairing of two of Hollywood’s finest actresses. AMMONITE is a small film, seeped in intimacy, and the two actresses allow themselves to have vulnerable moments. The two have great chemistry, which especially shows in the sex scenes. These scenes are carefully choreographed and very raw. Just like GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, this is a film which is unflinching in its sex and nudity. Throughout AMMONITE, the camerawork is constantly handheld and naturalistic, embedding realism into everything. Similarly the film’s sound design is tactile and constant. There is so little dialogue that the sounds of the world echo over everything. With a focus on realistic sights and sounds, and human sexuality, it seems like Francis Lee has already built a strong directorial identity for himself.
At times AMMONITE is deeply affecting. Ronan’s character is naïve and expects love to be a bigger priority than work. Her youthful ignorance is played as a beautiful counterpoint to Winslet’s cold wisdom. AMMONITE is a little passionless, but it draws on two very different people who don’t know how to respond around each other. This is cinema with nothing flashy, it’s all about genuine human interactions and emotions. It’s obvious that this is the sort of film which will end on an ambiguous final moment. It’s neat, but predictable.
AMMONITE is a film anchored by a realist approach to filmmaking and a romance story told carefully. It doesn’t have the passion and wild emotions that one may expect, or indeed want. Everything is underplayed. At times that makes it beautiful. It doesn’t compare with other historical lesbian films like CAROL (2015) or PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (2019), but it is still a strong film all things considered.