Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones
Director: Francis Lee
Running Time: 120 mins
Ammonite is a British film about paleontologist Mary Anning, and her relationship with a young woman as she broke new ground in her field.
Incredibly measured and powerfully understated at its best, Ammonite is a romantic drama that deserves credit for its character-driven storytelling and willingness to leave the most important details unsaid. As striking a style as that is, however, it doesn’t hold the whole movie up for two hours, and Ammonite proves a frustrating watch more often than not, lacking a consistent emotional beat throughout.
In the end, this movie may not be the perfect, moving romantic drama it’s aiming to be, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of things to like about it. Above all, Ammonite’s understated style means that characters are at the very centre of its story, and director Francis Lee and lead actress Kate Winslet are key to making that work so well here.
Winslet’s performance as Mary Anning is fantastic throughout. She barely says a word, yet manages to evoke so much about her character, portraying a clearly brilliant and passionate woman, but a reticent one who has been beaten down by the tragedies of life. To get so much back story and emotional depth out with so little dialogue is a testament to Winslet’s acting here, as well as Francis Lee’s often excellent directing.
As I said, Ammonite is a deliberately understated film that follows the ‘show, don’t tell’ approach as its mantra. Not only is there little dialogue from the main characters, but the film’s main themes and emotional beats are left to be read in the subtext, with barely a mention of what’s really going on at the centre of events until the last few moments.
At its best, that approach makes Ammonite a beautifully intimate film, as you’re forced to delve as deep as possible into these characters to really understand what they’re feeling, rather than following a more generic narrative where everything is spelled out for you.
Unfortunately, that approach is a double-edged sword in this film’s case, and proves equally frustrating when it isn’t able to engender such powerful intimacy. While the use of narrative subtext is interesting throughout, the way that Ammonite unfolds is a little too sporadic, lacking a consistent build-up of emotion as the story progresses.
The film’s premise (and setting) is surprisingly reminiscent of the exhilarating Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, yet the two films couldn’t be more different in their approaches. Ammonite is a patient film that takes a harsh reality and details it with honesty, while Portrait is a slow-burning but powerfully passionate romantic thrill-ride set on a windswept French island.
The problem for Ammonite, however, is that it doesn’t have all that much to offer when it’s not working at its most intimate. Portrait Of A Lady On Fire features mystery and bubbling tension from the word go, whereas Ammonite’s focus on a romantic relationship in such sporadic fashion means there’s little else to really grab you at other times, particularly in the film’s early stages.
Lee’s decision to focus Anning’s story on her relationship with the young woman who comes to stay with her makes for some powerful romantic moments, but it does undermine a lot of what makes her pursuit in her profession interesting, again mostly in the first act.
As a result, while Ammonite deserves immense credit for its understated and measured style, it doesn’t work perfectly, and is more often than not a hindrance for the film.
Overall, I appreciated what Ammonite was trying to do, and I really liked its character-focused storytelling, as well as Kate Winslet’s fantastic performance. However, it lacks a consistent emotional heartbeat, proving a frustrating watch with the exception of some brilliantly intimate moments. So, that’s why I’m giving it a 7.0.