From award-winning writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), Ammonite is another beautifully detailed depiction of an earthy same-sex romance, this time on England’s Jurassic Coast in the mid-19th century. Once again, Lee takes an elemental approach, connecting his characters to the location and the earth itself while exploring intense, deep passions. So while the film may feel a bit underpowered and slow, it churns with real-life emotion that resonates around much bigger themes nearly two centuries later.
The story is set in Lyme Regis in the 1840s, where Mary (Kate Winslet) lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones). A noted fossil hunter, Mary (based on real life Mary Anning) has made some significant discoveries in the seaside cliffs, but is now just looking for ammonites she can sell to visiting tourists in her little shop. Then one of her fans, the posh archeologist Roderick (James McArdle), turns up asking her for a lesson in how to spot fossils. Since Mary needs the cash, she can hardly say no. But things get more complicated when Roderick is called off to an expedition abroad, and he pays Mary to watch over his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who’s grieving over the loss of their child. The gritty Mary and the privileged Charlotte have little in common, but a spark of attraction helps them bridge their class divide, blossoming into a romance that they need to keep a secret.
Both Winslet and Ronan fully inhabit these women, and hold nothing back in their sexual encounters. They’re also unusually complex roles, with Mary’s harsh perfectionism set against Charlotte’s moody fragility. And they play their past pain and strong mutual attraction with remarkable subtlety.
The weather and landscapes set the tone for each scene, with rocky beaches, churning tides and bleak skies contrasting against happier days when sunshine glistens off gentle waves. Thankfully, Lee does this almost imperceptibly, keeping the focus on these two gifted actresses. Both Winslet and Ronan fully inhabit these women, and hold nothing back in their sexual encounters. They’re also unusually complex roles, with Mary’s harsh perfectionism set against Charlotte’s moody fragility. And they play their past pain and strong mutual attraction with remarkable subtlety.
Side roles add further wrinkles, including the terrific Jones as Mary’s ailing, disapproving mother, and the great Fiona Shaw as Mary’s wealthy friend, who sparks a flash of jealousy when she connects strongly with Charlotte. Meanwhile, Alec Secareanu (In God’s Country) turns up as a friendly, flirtatious doctor whom Molly dismisses as a loathed foreigner. Everyone is trying their best to remain proper, and it’s fun to spot their inner spark lurking in the subtext.
What brings this story to life is the unexpected way Charlotte helps Mary find her voice. She has been worn down by the fact that her important achievements have been ignored while ignorant men get all the glory. She knows that she has value, even coming from a lower class, sidelined gender and forbidden sexuality. But perhaps this new intimacy can help her find the confidence to stand her ground. That said, the story remains deeply personal, never letting these bigger themes overwhelm the characters. So the final act is moving and memorable.
Ammonite is coming soon to cinemas and streaming