Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 11/17/20 07:41:19

"You can miss out on a lot by trying to be really, really sure."
3 stars (Average)

The opening scene of "Ammonite" - a woman on her knees doing scut work being rudely brushed aside so that men can do something which involves erasing the important contribution of a woman - isn't the movie in miniature, thankfully, but that just makes one wonder why it's so prominent. The film is instead a small love story where the tension is the point, one that would probably impress a bit more if it hadn't appeared in such relatively close proximity to "Portrait of a Lady on Fire", which shares more or less the same structure.

This one also offers a woman, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who is very good at what she does, who is hired not just in her official capacity but to serve as a companion of sorts. Though Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) is an admirer of the Lyme-based fossil-hunter's findings, he is planning an expedition to the continent which his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is clearly not up for. Could Mary keep an eye on her? When it turns out that Charlotte has rather more than "light melancholia", and it has been exacerbated by the water therapy that was in vogue in the 1840s, Mary and her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) wind up taking Charlotte into their tiny home, and their proximity soon reveals attraction.

It's a bit of a plodding film at times, a romance that is often mincingly tentative, with Mary and Charlotte spending a lot of time circling each other. It makes sense; being gay in this particular time and place would mean making absolutely certain that the other person reciprocates your interest and is willing to respond in kind. Writer/director Francis Lee has hit upon a nifty way of illustrating this in Mary's work of finding the ordinary-looking rocks that may have something different inside and carefully bringing that out, but he seldom dives into it. That's too bad, because the process of it would be fascinating to see and it would maybe give this love affair some structure and individuality rather than the way it often feels like Charlotte is willing to fall for anybody who treats her kindly while Mary holds back because she can't be sure and doesn't want to test the waters.

Fortunately, the film has Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, who are both good at delivering just what it needs. Winslet gives Mary the proper working-class combination of earthiness and intellect while Roman delivers a sort of innocent insulation from that, but they spark against each other in a way that crosses that boundary without making that big a deal of it. We could maybe do to learn a bit more about each of them, but we don't really need to with what we're given. There are some nice performances around them that do good work in sharpening who Mary is in particular - Gemma Jones's hardened mother, Fiona Shaw's one-time lover, Alec Secareanu as a doctor whose attraction is not going to get anywhere - and it might be nice if there was a bit more of that on the other side; James McArdle never seems wrong as Charlotte's husband, but her world never seems as precise as Mary's.

It's a muddiness that often works to the film's advantage - everything that steers things to Mary's more hardscrabble world rather than the more thoroughly-chronicled intrigues of those in the upper class lets Lee get closer to the raw emotions of these women and how being circumspect is hard and painful - but just as often makes any joy the pair are deriving from their pairing hard to discern. The sex scenes in particular are often more primal release than something happening between two individuals (which, admittedly, does give Ronan a big "oh, so this is how good that's supposed to feel" moment without using those or any words) and the film is otherwise more comfortable in showing the depth of the pair's affection through potential separation rather than how they are together.

There's a coda that hints at a more individual romance which draws on their differences in age, class, and experience, and I suspect I won't be totally alone at getting to the end of "Ammonite" and wishing I could have seen that story. It's not that movie, and while it's good to have a movie that looks at the board uncertainty as much as the specific, it does make things slow going at times.

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