A actor who in youth showed no fear or self-consciousness inhabiting women whose will is a manifestation of their intelligence, Kate Winslet promises to fascinate as she approaches her third decade in film. Ammonite is unworthy of her. This film about British paleontologist Mary Anning and her romance with the younger future geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) has problems with familiar beats and too close a similarity to writer-director Francis Lee’s last film God’s Own Country; but Winslet fills the role of Anning with such concentrated fury and attention to her work that she imbues the film with interest if not quite suspense. After a few years’ lull and a thoroughly uninteresting performance in Steve Jobs, it’s good to see Winslet back. We’re only now beginning to realize this actor’s depths.
In the English town of Lyme Regis on the English channel, Mary wanders the grey beach in search of fossils she could smooth out of stones. Her only companion, her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), knows nothing about the Pre-Cambrian Era, but she knows how to run a shop selling those fossils to tourists (Anning knows nothing about eggs, though: imagine Molly’s surprise when she cracks open one for breakfast to find a partially developed chick). One afternoon Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) stops by. A paleontologist himself, Murchison has an insistent joviality, as if he’s convinced he’s the most charming person in Albion. Charlotte, glowering in the background, doesn’t agree. He makes an offer: first about the fossils, then about Charlotte. Suffering from what the century dismissed as melancholia, Charlotte is depressed after the death of her infant child, a development that has stopped sexual relations between her and Murchison cold. “It’s not time to make another baby!” he snaps when she tries snuggling up to him. Before he can go gallivanting off to Europe on a fossil hunting trip, Murchison unloads Charlotte on Mary.
Up until this point Ammonite‘s principal attractions are the heretofore unknown shades of grey cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine finds in the craggy, forbidding shoreline and the purposeful manner in which Winslet as Mary moves through it. Once united, the audience waits for Mary and Charlotte’s blossoming attraction to manifest. A swim brings the latter close to death. God’s Own Country‘s Alec Secăreanu plays the doctor, and like Murchison he has a self-amused manner that grates. When the doctor flirts with Charlotte at a fête she’s well enough to attend, it’s Mary’s turn to seethe. Of course, there’s only one bed, and the women must share it because movie conventions about first gay hookups.
What was novel in God’s Own Country has now hardened into manner. It’s clear that rural depredation fascinates Lee: close-ups on smudged faces, faded gingham dresses, or whatever. Call it the poverty porn in which directors indulge with the best intentions. To avoid romanticizing that poverty leads them toward another kind of kitsch. These decisions cramp Gemma Jones, who reprises her God’s Own Country character but with a consumptive cough; the role is so circumscribed that to see her is to plot her movements on a graph. Ronan is fine. She’s always fine, often better than that. But the role of Charlotte gives her little to do except look stricken in medium shot until she and Mary hook up; when she submits to her lusts, her skin flushes, like a woman in a Mary Cassatt painting, and you can believe she has never known pleasure, certainly not with a simpering prig like Murchison.
But Ammonite belongs to Winslet. Unafraid as a young actor to appear without makeup, proud to eschew Hollywood weight standards that turned broomsticks into elephants, she retains her lack of vanity. Thanks to her, Mary could have plausibly appeared in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma’s far superior 2019 drama about the romance between a painter and her sitter. That film is wiser about art than Ammonite is about fossils, whose appearances amount to McGuffins. Here’s hoping Ammonite reminds casting directors of Winslet’s power even in roles corseting her range.