Review by Sean Boelman
Coming off a highly-acclaimed feature debut, writer-director Francis Lee this time takes a stab at the seaside lesbian romance with the support of a stellar cast led by Kate Winslet and Saiorse Ronan. Noticeably gorgeous but disappointingly slight, Ammonite isn’t a bad effort, but it mostly feels like a hollow and emotionless shell of a film.
Taking some pretty extensive liberties with its real-life subjects’ lives, the film explores the relationship that forms between paleontologist Mary Anning and a young woman who is placed in her charge. And while Anning’s story is undeniably interesting, the fact that it is constricted by the form of a conventional love story is disappointing.
Lee manages to keep the film from being boring despite its two-hour length with minimal conflict, but after the first hour or so, audiences aren’t given much of a reason to care. What is desperately missing is a sense of movement, whether from a more forceful narrative or a gripping sense of poeticism, neither of which is a factor.
Perhaps more frustrating is how Lee ignores some of the obvious messages that Anning’s story could offer. She made some historically significant contributions to her field despite participating in a scientific community that was largely unwelcoming to her, and yet this script reduces her to a lonely and lovesick lady.
The love interest isn’t particularly well-developed either. The bored housewife archetype is so worn at this point, and the character hardly goes beyond the cliches. It’s clear that Lee is trying to set up an “opposites attract” situation with the independent Anning and her more conforming lover, but this storyline falls flat.
Winslet and Ronan are good enough, but both of them have given much better performances before. Their turns are largely lacking in nuance or emotion. Neither of them is able to sell the feeling of passion that is supposed to drive the film, even in the steamier scenes in the second half. There is some chemistry, but not enough to feel genuine.
It is on a visual level that Lee’s film succeeds the most. It’s a gorgeous film to look at thanks to the British oceanside on which it is shot. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is mostly excellent (apart from the sex scenes, which are a bit clumsy) and Michael O’Connor’s costume design is consistently a highlight.
Ammonite is a pretty unspectacular film, and its subject definitely deserves more than this. It’s worth watching for some beautiful shots and decent performances, but it isn’t the poetic masterpiece it should have been.
Ammonite opens in theaters on November 13 and hits VOD on December 4.