Kate Winslet returns to the screen as an older paleontologist named Mary with an essence as cold and hardened as the fossils she discovers. After accepting a request from a local scientist, whom she despises, Winslet is introduced to his wife whose naive spirit forces her to open up her heart. Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan, is the wife who just like Mary, cannot bear her husband. The two distinctly different women gradually dispose of their differences which allows for the blossoming of a romance. A romance that falls short of defining what constitutes it.
Ammonite is a period drama set in a small village along the beautiful beaches of the English Channel. We’re brought into the past where a patriarchal society persists as the norm, provoking independent women like Mary to swear against it. Here, in the darker color palette of grainy sands and ocean-stained cliffs, Mary meets Charlotte’s seemingly incoherent character. Charlotte’s husband introduces her as his wife suffering from a “melancholia,” or otherwise a depressive state, granting her a ghostly presence. Her husband then abandons her to Mary’s care as he ventures off to search for fossils in an unknown faraway location. Although Mary initially rejects Charlotte’s accompaniment their unlikely companionship forms from a reluctant agreement.
Brisk days pass while Charlotte and Mary spend their time closely together on the beaches and in Mary’s home which she shares with her mother. Tensions between the two women quickly dissolve after Charlotte falls sick with a fever and Mary tends to her. This catalyst is one of the main elements that failed to devote a reason why Mary and Charlotte started to connect. Mary’s cold, impersonal character did not show a significant change of heart towards Charlotte’s sickness. She exuded much more pity in light of Charlotte’s sickness rather than compassion and love. During a scene when Mary subtly displayed an emotional connection while Charlotte slept, it could have easily been confused with maternal care instead of romantic. After the scene, Mary does go on to explain that she is one of two surviving children out of 10 in her family. A missing puzzle piece within the film’s storyline since we do not get any further information about the other siblings’ whereabouts.
Francis Lee’s choice of providing a lack of dialogue may have been interpreted as a stylistic choice but it only aided in a larger emotional disconnect between the lovers. It is very difficult to understand Mary’s detached character when there are no apparent elements to explain her actions or inner thoughts. Mary and Charlotte exchanged approximately 30 vague sentences combined before they engaged in a passionate lovemaking scene that felt puzzling. Not to mention, the bare presence of affection that would reasonably rise to the action.
Potentially, actresses Winslet and Ronan were not capable of producing a true demonstration of what love between two women resembles. It is hard to replicate the female gaze in a post “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” world, a master film depicting lesbian romance. Lee’s minimal direction toward character development within Mary, specifically, also contributed to the empty love they share. A bitter, cold woman cannot simply jump into an intimate romantic endeavor without significant events that cause her to change which did not occur. Charlotte, on the other hand, received clearer character ques that made her character more logical. Her dreadful perspective of her husband, early infatuation with Mary and her advocacy of Mary’s career aligned with her ascend to fall in love with Mary. If only Mary received the same developmental treatment Charlotte did, then there could have been a chance for a realistic romance.
At best, “Ammonite” is an average film. It leaves the audience wondering what more could have Mary and Charlotte’s relationship been and what more could have their characters offer. Lee built an unsteady foundation for an intriguing romance that resulted in disappointment and an unresolved tone.