Review: Ammonite (2020)

Director/Screenwriter: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, James McArdle
Genres: Drama, Romance
MPAA Rating: Rated R for graphic sexuality, some graphic nudity, and brief language
Release Dates: 11/13/20 (Theatres); 12/4/20 (Streaming)
Runtime: 2 hours
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 67%
Where to Watch: Rent/Buy
Oscar Nomination(s): Possible-Actress (Winslet), Supporting Actress (Ronan), Cinematography, Costume Design, Original Score; Long-Shot-Original Screenplay, Picture

Ammonite was one of the most anticipated films of 2020, and managed to play in limited theatres last fall shortly before being available on demand. It’s one of the few movies not really impacted by the pandemic, but was high on my never-ending movie queue due to featuring two of my favorite actresses, Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet, as lovers in a period drama. And, while it is solid, the acclaimed actresses certainly elevate the material, which aims to be like a Jurassic Park version of 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (which I gave a rare perfect score). 

One complaint I’ve seen regarding this movie is that, unlike PortraitAmmonite isn’t super-romantic — there doesn’t seem to be a mutual love between Ronan’s and Winslet’s characters (although there is obviously a mutual attraction). That’s actually okay here, because their relationship is more complicated than that. Winslet plays Mary Anning, the main character — who was a really famous but underappreciated fossil hunter — as extremely stoic and a woman of few words. This contrasts sharply (and fascinatingly) with Ronan’s clear-eyed, outgoing portrayal of Anning’s soon-to-be paramour, young newlywed Charlotte. Neither performances are all that showy, though, which is something of a miracle for two actresses who have previously had big, acclaimed roles. Sure, it’s not ideal to have two heterosexual performances in these roles, but they do so authentically and believably; it certainly helps that both Ronan and Winslet remarked on how comfortable they felt filming their much-talked-about explicit sex scene. 

Supporting cast members like Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, and James McArdle aren’t given much to do, although they make the best of their limited screen time (Jones’ role seemed essentially pointless). Also, writer-director Francis Lee’s script is a bit too heavy-handed in emphasizing a woman’s place in the 19th century in England; I appreciate the feminist message, but it’s not as well-done as it is in Portrait. Although, as in the 2019 film, in Ammonite the lovers never have reason to feel (or do actually feel) shameful or embarrassed. That’s thanks to the terrifically subtle work of Ronan and Winslet, whose glances and minimal interactions should be studied for their effectiveness. 

Others who viewed the film didn’t like its treatment of the Anning as a figure, and apparently the relationship between her and Charlotte didn’t actually happen. Yet, this doesn’t bother me, as it’s clearly a fictionalized account that is only slightly based on a real person. I didn’t know anything about Anning before watching the movie, so perhaps that’s why this wasn’t an issue for me. 

As far as the technical elements go, Lee’s direction is solid, as is the cinematography. It’s very intimate, which emphasizes the performances here. The scenes are often slow but purposeful, and I was rarely bored, even when it seemed like it was taking too long for something to happen. There are weird mood shifts that don’t necessarily  work, despite Ronan’s and Winslet’s best efforts. Also, I had difficulty hearing some of the dialogue in the scenes by the roaring water; I appreciate the authenticity of the setting, but I don’t want the dialogue to be lost (like in much of Tenet). 

The ending is rather ambiguous, which is hardly my favorite type of ending. However, in this particular instance, I have my guesses (no spoilers!) based on what had happened just before. Regardless, the journey is very interesting; and, in a less competitive [longer] awards season, I think both Ronan and Winslet would have a shot at being nominated, but I’m not sure that will happen this year.