Even when discovery is minimal, something is always gained. What matters is what one does with minor revelation. Do you run from it or keep on digging? This is the dilemma faced by 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), star of Francis Lee’s stoic yet intermittently impassioned Ammonite. The lesbian period drama is held aloft by dutiful performances that carve out unspoken deeper desire.
Unlike Lee’s previous God’s Own Country, raw emotions are stifled to the point of fearful dejection. When it comes to choosing between human expression and human innovation, Anning values the latter. After all, her self-made career as a prehistoric fossil collector resulted in an unparalleled contribution to the scientific community. But was she a woman buried in work, or did she use work to bury forbidden yearning? This is the untold part of the trailblazer’s backstory, which fascinates Lee the most, though its historical truth depends on how much you read into a life undefined by gender expectations.
Before Mary met Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), she was secluded in her cliffside property overlooking the English Channel’s rough seas. The port town of Lyme Regis may be dreary, but it’s home to some of the world’s oldest specimens. Fossils containing ammonite — an extinct subspecies of mollusks — wash ashore, much to Anning’s delight. Well, as close to “delight” as someone so somber can get, that is. Mary makes an art out of fossil carving, scraping down the solid remains until the organism’s exoskeleton is thoroughly defined. Once complete, Mary repurposes her home as a store to sell her findings to tourists and museum curators.
One tourist who shows interest is Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), accompanied by his despondent wife Charlotte, who refuses to leave the confines of her bed. With Murchison continuing his tour of Europe, he feels he has no choice but to leave his wife behind, believing the ocean breeze will blow away Charlotte’s melancholic state. Murchison also hires Mary to watch over Charlotte’s health while he’s away. At first reluctant, Mary soon grows fond of the young wife, appreciating her inquisitive and awestruck reaction to Mary’s vocation. In return, Charlotte’s spirit is boosted by the paleontologist’s willingness to accept help excavating the ammonite.
Charlotte isn’t the only person under Mary’s conservatorship. Mary lives with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), a rigid and proud woman who survived eight of her children. Molly doesn’t care for Charlotte’s encroachment or curiosity, especially when it comes to her prized figurines. They represent her late offspring, marking one of the rare times in Ammonite that Lee uses symbolism to successfully translate a character’s inner pain.
What’s lacking in Francis Lee’s sensual biopic is intention. What propels Charlotte into a torrid affair with Mary? For Mary, it appears she has a lesbian past — she rejects the subtle advancements of her elder neighbor Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), suggesting prior entanglement. But for Charlotte, pangs of loneliness seem to be the only explanation for why she’d jump into a wistful, carnal, codependent relationship with Lyme Regis’s most prominent resident. Mary and Charlotte’s “love story” treats homosexuality as a symptom of circumstance instead of what it actually is: indisputably biological. Nurture overrides nature in Ammonite, as Charlotte confuses caretaking for adoration meant to last forever. Mary’s future plans aren’t respectfully considered, though, for the time being, Charlotte brings heat to a life delineated by cold, unwelcoming dedication to her profession.
Kate Winslet gives another astonishing turn playing a real-life historical figure, unencumbered by thick accents or showy antics. Mary Anning is a woman consumed by work and embroiled in a subconscious dispute. Does she set aside her dreams, which have panned out quite marvelously thus far, to fill the void of intimacy? You can see the internal rage brewing in Winslet’s eyes, her severe glances conveying ambivalent trepidation whenever Charlotte is fluttering about. As for Saoirse Ronan, the four-time Academy Award nominee is saddled with a role that’s more naïve than headstrong. She does her best, but between the noticeable age gap between the two women and an uncharacteristic lack of agency, Ronan is somewhat miscast. Lee underestimates the young thespian’s maturity, preferring to employ her youth and sprightly energy (when activated).
The Kate Winslet-starring Ammonite is the opposite of Titanic: it’s all iceberg until it encounters the love boat. A woman of history’s private life is her own, and any salacious exploration without factual context risks distracting from her remarkable accomplishments. With an ending that repudiates closure, Lee’s latest queer romance is more frustrating than heartfelt. Winslet’s extraordinary work, consummate costume design by Michael O’Connor, and Lee’s exquisite eye for period piece detail buoy a seaside liaison that singes where Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire burns.