Ammonite has big expectations to meet as a lesbian love story and an ode to the important historical figure at its center.
Francis Lee has something different in mind.
It’s easy to see Ammonite as dull as a pile of rocks. It has washed-out colors, sparse dialogue, and a barely-there film score. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan make old-timey flirting with glances and furtive touches.
This is deliberate.
The film direction, cinematography, and sound design paint an effective picture of a character that’s emotionally inhibited by her own self and her environment. The script pore over details as Mary (Kate Winslet) finds something that she wasn’t looking for but sorely needed.
Ammonite starts to the sound of water being poured and we see her at work. She plods along the beach at the crack of dawn in a drab petticoat. She puts food on the table to support an ailing mother, who provides more affection to her porcelain “babies” than her last surviving child. Then Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) comes into her life, mourning a loss her husband regards as an inconvenient bout of melancholia.
The two fall in love. Caring for a living human being awakens something in Mary, whose life is spent finding preserved impressions of dead things. Charlotte is happy to find that she’s not alone and eager to take part in a domestic life absent in her own.
Ammonite is a build-up of these moments that forge a connection between its characters. The slow montage of restrain is a fitting juxtaposition to the couple’s intimate urgent scenes. The sex scenes are short, but also spare us from lesbian sex gymnastics.
The movie is burdened by this execution. Fortunately, it can rely on great performances from its cast. Most of the responsibility falls on Kate Winslet, and she manages to convey pages of dialogue with body language. In one scene, she’s visibly overwhelmed as the difference between her and Charlotte’s world becomes evident without saying a word.
All of this makes for a measured but distant film. It doesn’t tell you anything about its characters apart from the obvious.
For the most part, it works. Ammonite excels as an introspective story that moves from moment to moment. Once you decipher what they mean, it makes a lasting impression.
Francis Lee is focused on the connection of two people from different yet similarly joyless lives as they build their own space in a confined world. The movie tells us that people like Mary can still find and deserve a life-changing relationship.
The movie has received criticism for giving a real-life historical figure a fictional lesbian affair, but Francis Lee does have a point:
“After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context? Would these newspaper writers have felt the need to whip up uninformed quotes from self-proclaimed experts if the character’s sexuality had been assumed to be heterosexual?”
The open-ended ending makes you wish for Mary to finally keep something of her own.
Ammonite is a well-acted and reflective romance about finding love in the most unlikely place.