'Ammonite': Kate Winslet Is Terrific, But Francis Lee's Lesbian Romance Is Too Cold & Distant [TIFF Review]

When it comes to mood and milieu, writer-director Francis Lee prefers something bare, austere and quiet. In fact, it was the harmonious union of these severe qualities that furnished his 2017 feature debut, “God’s Own Country,” with a daring edge and lyrical spirit. These aforesaid attributes turn up again (and with abundance) in “Ammonite,” Lee’s fictional tale built around the real-life, self-taught 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning. Yet this time, they curiously hold back his already understated film, telling an often wordless, stern and wind-swept tale of romance between the financially strapped recluse Anning (Kate Winslet) and the married, sickly, upper-class Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). While all the makings of a soul-wrenchingly impossible affair seem to be here, “Ammonite” sadly feels too distant, underpowered and colorless for its own good, as if somewhere down the line, its heart had died and hardened like a fossil waiting to be discovered.

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That’s quite a contrast to Céline Sciamma’s masterful “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” whose delicately sizzling and steadily rousing disposition one can’t help but crave throughout Lee’s own cliffside lesbian yarn of tight-corsets and womanly troubles perpetuated by patriarchy. To be fair, Lee doesn’t set out to copy or walk in the footsteps of Sciamma. His metaphor-heavy style—less painterly, more stark—is pronouncedly different, and his characters are charged by a different set of motivations. Still, it’s hard not to compare them, or to ignore the thread that connects “Ammonite,” as well as Mona Fastvold’s recent Venice Film Festival hit “The World to Come”—a gorgeous looking, yet oddly stilted and maddeningly voiceover-heavy frontier love story—to Sciamma’s dashing “Portrait.” After all, these are all deeply feminine accounts of a pair of forlorn, love-struck women finding solace and freedom in each other’s company, aiding one another’s art and labor, defying the crippling claws of entitled men in their lives.

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But neither film, certainly not “Ammonite,” measures up to the swelling nature of “Portrait.” Where Sciamma’s ladies slowly take notice of their mutual chemistry, patiently engage in a romantic build-up and eventually fall to bed (mostly in private), Lee’s duo clumsily dance around an attraction that might or might not be there until frank (and frankly steamy) sex scenes arrive all too abruptly. Even though the women don’t break out of their layers and layers of clothing until more than halfway into the film, it all feels so unearned and unconvincingly fluid (without the slightest bit of hesitation or awkwardness of a first-time forbidden sex) that one wonders whether some necessary scenes were removed in a recent edit to prioritize a palatable running time over sufficient context.

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In that regard, Lee asks for considerable groundwork from the audience to fill in certain blanks throughout his film. On the bright side, this deficit admittedly makes for an intriguing first act, when we initially get introduced to Mary, and in time, to Charlotte. Through the watchful and deeply textured lens of his cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, Lee skillfully represents Mary with thoughtful visual details—her well-worn, bruised hands meticulously working with shapely rocks and extraordinary relics on the Jurassic Coast; her rough, barely-brushed hair gathered in a clumsy bun and her stained, aptly ill-fitting dresses (designed brilliantly by costumer Michael O’Connor) all reveal a tough character who (pardon the language) does not have any f*cks left to give to anything but the pride she takes in her demanding work.

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Her hard-bitten image soon gets confirmed when the diligent fossil hunter, living with her ailing mother (Gemma Jones, underutilized) in a modest home of few means, receives an unannounced visit from the well-off Murchisons—Roderick (James McArdle) and Charlotte. Mary is quick to shrug off Roderick’s praises of her apparently legendary work, dismissing the geological society he name-drops as a merely male-populated circle. Still, she accepts Roderick’s handsome offer to pay for a brief educational excavation with her; and later on, to look after his frail wife while he is away on business. Meanwhile, we slowly learn that the lonely Charlotte trapped inside an alienating marriage is grieving the loss of her baby and slowly recovering from an emotional breakdown.

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When the two women reluctantly find themselves under the same roof and even engage in social gatherings in due course, their differences hastily and sharply rise to the surface. Clad in luxurious fabrics, Charlotte is delicate, bouncy and savvy with business-minded pursuits, whereas Mary is closed-off and introverted, always acutely and uncomfortably aware of the class divergence (the most interesting aspect of “Ammonite”) that separates her from a certain kind of town’s folk. The always studious Winslet is simply terrific journeying through Mary’s complex character arc, gradually softening her harsh exterior in the face of an unexpected yet illicit courtship that finds her suddenly, and even emotionally elevating an under-wrought case of an ill-fated romance with an ex (Fiona Shaw). Perhaps the greatest actor of her generation, Ronan feels less commanding as Charlotte, but only because her character doesn’t get much of a growth of her own or a back-story as rich as Mary’s.

And that’s by design, since Anning is based on a real character after all, one who didn’t get her due from history like countless other groundbreaking women of her time. Perhaps knowing this, Winslet practically wears a collective grudge in the depths of her uncompromisingly proud facial gestures; a resentment that belongs to innumerable gifted women whose stories went untold, whose achievements and contributions to society went underrated, or worse, stolen by their male counterparts. “Ammonite” is no biopic. But thanks to Winslet’s intricate and impressively physical performance, one leaves it almost wishing that it was one, feeling even more curious about the real Anning who gets buried here under a well-intentioned fictional love story and the film’s undeniable overall chill. [C]

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