I was excited about this one as soon as it was announced. Mary Anning, the subject of the movie, is one of history’s many poorly known female scientists and someone I have been familiar with since we studied her significant contributions to the field of palaeontology on a school trip to Dorset twenty years ago. (Yes, before any of you accuse me of lying about my age, I was the teacher.) Even aside of this though, the two leads are arguably the most consistently brilliant and selective actors to have worked in films in the last twenty five years (which is also around as long ago as one of them was born).
If you wanted to have that argument then you might point out that both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan have appeared in ropey adaptations of YA novels (the latter at the start of her career and the former later on). Also, Winslet has Movie 43 in her filmography and Ronan was in the video for that insufferable Ed Sheeran song. These are career anomalies though and neither of them have ever given a performance that is not precisely measured, absorbing and fiercely intelligent.
I also knew that this was a period love story similar to this year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire which is a film I adored.
Ammonite has just closed the London Film Festival and while my ambition to get tickets for this annual gala is still unfulfilled, this year they simultaneously screened the movie in a number of regional cinemas. Off I went then with high expectations, expectations that were totally not met.
This is not a bad movie, not at all, but I was disappointed for reasons directly linked to the hopes I had for it. It isn’t Winslet and Ronan; they are both as good in this film as they have ever been and that is really saying something. They are both the absolute picture of stoical repression and hesitant desire. It’s not them, it’s the other things.
The first issue is that this story of Mary Anning tells almost nothing of the story of Mary Anning. You do see her hunting for fossils on the beaches of Lyme Regis and working in the business she unusually set up around this. It is also made clear how she failed to get due respect in a man’s world, often because they took credit for her discoveries. There is little of the incredible patience and determination she showed in not only searching for evidence of prehistoric life, but in drawing scientific conclusion from this and in the fight to get recognition from the Geological Society of London that refused her membership because of her rebellion against the church and her gender. There is also no whisper of the highly cinematic cliff collapse that very nearly took her life and did kill her faithful spaniel terrier. What it concentrates on instead is her love affair with geologist Charlotte Murchison which seems to be total speculation based merely on the fact that they were friends and one of them never married.
Of course it is this focus that also brings immediate comparison with Portrait of a Lady on Fire. The two stories are also set around the same time, give or take fifty years, and both have a heavily featured coastal location and husbands that get in the way. Unfortunately, and this is the biggest problem, it really does not compare.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire was a pure, powerful and heartrending romance. It was understated but beautiful. I wouldn’t describe Ammonite as passionless and the leads have believable chemistry but it feels quite cold.
There is a sex scene that while well executed also has an absence of tenderness. I can see that this is deliberate and I certainly didn’t want it to be sentimentalised and sexy but the same moments in Blue is the Warmest Colour, that were intimate to the point of discomfort, still felt like the couple had an emotional connection. Winslet and Ronan choreographed this scene between the two of them and while discussing this Winslet said it was important they do this themselves because it wasn’t just like eating a sandwich. I’m not sure I know why she chose that particular differentiation but ‘eating a sandwich’ is a euphemism you could use for what they do. Portrait of a Lady on Fire by contrast doesn’t show its lovers having sex because it doesn’t need to.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire also had the most wonderful resolution but the ending of Ammonite feels rushed and inconclusive. The final shot also labours the notion that the ammonite of the title is Mary Anning herself, not the swirly fossil she pulls out of the rock. She is the one compressed by years of history, hardened and unmoving. I got that, I didn’t need it showcased with a showcase.
I admired Ammonite. The cast are all superb, Fiona Shaw plays a little against type and it is nice to see Gemma Jones playing Kate Winslet’s mother again after Sense and Sensibility. The men in it are largely incidental as well which is good to see from a male writer/director. It’s just that the love wasn’t there; mine or theirs.