Queer period romance films have had a bit of a kick as of late, and I have been very grateful for them thus far. Colette, The Handmaiden, Carol, The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, among others, have painted lovingly lush pictures of queerness in a time of repression and secrecy, and done so with an immense amount of passion and creativity. Francis Lee, fresh off of his queer non-period romance film, God’s Own Country, dips into the waters of the costume drama of queerness with Ammonite, with celebrated actresses Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in the lead roles. Unfortunately, with a new world now inundated with films of this type, Ammonite struggles to tread water with the rest of its more capable counterparts.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a fossil collector working out of her small shop in her mother’s (Gemma Jones) home in the south of England. When a visiting fossil enthusiast, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) entrusts his depressed wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to Mary for a handsome sum, Mary takes her under her wing, begrudgingly. Initially distant, the two begin to bond over their respective loneliness in the world and begin a passionate affair in secret.
The biggest problem that Ammonite suffers from is simply a fundamental lack of chemistry between the two leads. No matter how good Winslet or Ronan are on their own, respectively, they simply do not have the raw emotional chemistry that is required to sell a story like this. It leads much of the film leading up to the inception of the affair feeling entirely unwarranted by the time it comes around, and the pace of Ammonite is simply too slow to forgive that.
And Ammonite is slow, man. At 117 minutes, this film takes every single minute to pull out as much as it possibly can from its runtime, and it, unfortunately, creates an experience that is far more sluggish than it should be. In films like this, I’m looking to be swept up in the intimacy and heat in the romance, and never want it to end, but Ammonite has about six different endings, well after the story has run its course. Everything feels so remotely stagnant that it simply feels like Ammonite has nowhere to go, and it really doesn’t.
If I had to describe Ammonite as one word, “cold” would suffice. While I can use this against the film’s lack of passion or energy, I could also use it to compliment the starkly attractive film that Francis Lee has crafted on the backdrop of the cliffs of Southern England. This is peak indie British costume drama and Lee has an immense eye for both the lavish and unattractive parts of living in Victorian England.
Complementing this is a lovingly rousing score from Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann. Much like other indie dramas of its ilk, it is sparse and selectively utilized, but this is truly a “quality over quantity” situation. Using melancholy piano and rousing string orchestras, the score does a good bit of the heavy lifting when it comes to the film’s emotional resonance, which is perhaps more than it should have to do, but O’Halloran and Bertelman are more than capable.
Mary and Charlotte often exchange prolonged, cold, vacant stares with each other throughout the runtime of Ammonite, much how it always felt like there was a cold, vacant distance from the film’s heart to the burning passion that the film felt like it was supposed to have. There is a disheartening lack of chemistry between Winslet and Ronan, and it creates an impenetrable distance from the screen to the audience that is incredibly difficult to break through, even with the amount of time Ammonite gives us to try. It ticks the boxes of what a period romance should be aesthetically, and I will never bemoan the presence of queer love in films, but Ammonite proves that there can be misfires, just as with their straight counterparts.
In select theaters beginning November 13th, 2020.
Available on Hulu beginning December 4th, 2020.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.