Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The good work in Ammonite is so good that one longs for it to pick up the pace, to function more successfully overall."

Fossil hunting is not a glamorous profession. The contrast between how we conventionally view fossils and how they are located and recovered is considerable, and it forms the core of Francis Lee's consciously awkward romantic drama. The central relationship featured in the story has been criticised because it's fictitious (though the two women concerned did have a lasting friendship and - as director Francis Lee has noted - it's problematic to assume that historical figures must have been heterosexual), but it's not there purely for its own sake. Through it, Lee explores social expectations of women in the period as well as issues around class in the fragility of life when modern medicine was still in its infancy.

We first meet Mary (Kate Winslet) when she's covered in mud, skidding down a cliff face from which she has been trying to extract her latest find. This is work she does almost every day, collecting objects which she can clean up and polish and sell in her family's shop or, occasionally, to museums. Though the film is set at a stage of her life when she was gradually gaining recognition as one of the greatest palaeontologists around (albeit always an outsider because of her sex), she's living hand to mouth. When a gentleman scientist from London turns up at the shop and beseeches her to let him watch her work, she doesn't take him very seriously, almost inadvertently haggling a large sum of money out of him because of her resistance.

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Following along after this gentleman is his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), a fragile woman in elegant all-black clothes suggestive of mourning (it's subsequently implied that the couple have lost a child). She's clearly seriously depressed and perhaps physically ill as well. Her husband doesn't know what to do with her and, perhaps buying into the popular notion of the time that sea air was curative, bribes Mary to take her on as a sort of apprentice. When he leaves town and Charlotte's illness becomes critical, Mary is forced to take on a lot more, but in the process an unexpected bond forms between these two very different women, gradually morphing into something more passionate.

When I say gradually, I mean it, and this is the film's biggest problem. Both leads are as good as their impressive career histories would lead you to expect but the film is very, very slow, building up the emotion between them like layers of sediment accrued on a petrified mollusc millennium after millennium. There is perhaps a reflection here on the slow pace of life for two people who are both, in their different ways, cut off from the action of life, but it's equally frustrating for the audience. Though the film also concerns itself with Mary's relationship with her mother and with a neighbour whom she may have been involved with in the past, Lee simply doesn't give us enough to justify this glacial pacing.

There are also issues with character development. Beyond what the stars bring - which is not inconsiderable - we don't have much means of getting to know them. Charlotte, in particular, in underdeveloped, though the film's final scenes suggest that this may be because Mary doesn't know her as well as she thinks she does. The age difference between the two adds to the sense that they are distant in time. Charlotte's life is sophisticated, fashionable, forward-looking. Mary is not only focused on the deep past but exists in a place where, one century to another, things look much the same. She belongs to the earth, the tides, the wild exterior world. Charlotte, first glimpsed through a window, looks at home among the glass cabinets where the greatest treasures of the shoreline are stored away. Whilst Mary tries to find something in Charlotte that is raw and real, Charlotte seems to look on her as if she too were a found object, wonderful in her strangeness, in need of preservation.

Can two people from such different worlds ever make a relationship work? One of the refreshing things about the film is that Lee doesn't rely on the assumption that they will. What happens between them matters in itself, not because of what it might become. The sex scenes are blunt and straightforward, powered by the kind of urgency that exists between new lovers in real life, not designed to look pretty onscreen. There are no lingering romantic looks, just human longing. A good deal goes unspoken.

The good work in Ammonite is so good that one longs for it to pick up the pace, to function more successfully overall. It needs an aggressive edit. At the outset, Mary uncovers a large fossil which she spends ages cleaning up until it looks magnificent. This film has that potential, with intriguing hints of lines and curves, but it's still too clogged up with sediment to shine.

Reviewed on: 02 Dec 2020
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In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
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Director: Francis Lee

Writer: Francis Lee

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Kate Winslet, Sarah White, Liam Thomas, Sam Parks

Year: 2020

Runtime: 120 minutes

Country: UK, Australia, US

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