About halfway into “Ammonite”, the second film by British filmmaker Francis Lee, there is a scene that lays the foundation for his second half shift. Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, a self-taught palaeontologist, has been tending to Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sick wife of a rich fossil hunter away on a European trip. to deepen and they both attend a music recital together at the request of the local doctor, whose developments Mary is either ignorant or uninterested in.
Charlotte, a woman of society, is at home in the cultured environment but Mary fades into the background and watches as Charlotte seems to drift further away from her. This is the beginning of Mary’s confession of her feelings, but there are no words for Winslet to speak. Instead, the party noise – chat, music, tinker – dominates the scene as the camera follows her eyes. Watch, aspire, think. Physically, she doesn’t do much. It has no lines. Mary is removed from anyone, an entity on her own. But the moment is so specific and so informative to the ways in which Winslet matches performance with a theme in “Ammonite”. With the rise and fall of her chest, she becomes agitated in distress. With the darting eyes piercing into strangers’ backs. And with the way she holds her whole body, as if it is winding up as too tightly wrapped, Winslet immediately invites us to understand who this woman is.
There are several moments like this in “Ammonite”. They are mostly non-verbal. And mostly observational with little direct explanation. Instead, we are left to find meanings in movements in silence – a task and recurring demand for audiences watching “Ammonite” who come to note the way the film interrogates us, and then asking us to ask him. And it’s a demand that feels challenging.
While calling Lee’s film ‘challenging’ might feel like a codified critique, it’s a statement of truth instead. By design, Lee challenges us to rethink the complexities of expression and relationships in the context of the film. Lyme Regis’s introduction along the South coast of England in the 1840s is lively and reminds us of Lee’s interest in location and atmosphere. Between “God’s Own Country”, his previous film, and “Ammonite,” Lee reveals an incredibly precise interest in the idea of land and installation as pathetic cuteness with an emphasis on nuance. The lonely aspect of his films cuts across the reality that sustains them, and the rustic realism in “Ammonite” is almost shrinking for the ways in which it challenges our notions of period romance.
Before the romance is foregrounded, “Ammonite” is a character study of Mary, whose tactical silence defines the film and feels metaphorically represented in the blur of the film’s own ambience. Like Mary, Winslet steps through the film, often silently. She seems to be carrying the weight of disappointment and pain on her shoulders, living alongside her mother in the shop they run. For much of the first act, the film only references important events, leaving us to identify who this woman is. By the time Charlotte arrives, we come to understand that the knowledge gaps and ellipsis are crucial. Mary spends her days walking the beach, exploring and searching for rocks. Lee makes the audience a central part of the act of search and discovery. We begin to search for meaning in the images, reaching for something to discern in the silence and the gaps. As we become fellow explorers, the film becomes richer.
And there is no richer discovery in “Ammonite” than Winslet’s performance. “Ammonite” offers an in-depth perspective in her use of her talents over the past decade, where she has played leading roles that distort and shape ideas about herself as a star. The erotic romance of “Labor Day” is directly linked to absurd sartorial masquerade “The Dressmaker” to a histrionic melodrama “Wonder Wheel” (one of the best performances of the last decade). Her work in “Ammonite” joins this list of hard-to-love women, who refuse to compromise. Even in films that don’t always work, Winslet has been challenging her own competencies as an actor who looks forward to stories of women trapped by societies they can’t understand.
She bends “Ammonite” to her will. Her performance feels as much a definitive authoritative act as Lee’s direction. It gives her space to define the ways in which scenes unfold so that even in her silence – and rarely speaking – it shapes the way we see and understand the people from her scope.
Lee’s particular focus on Mary might threaten the transfer of the romance, but Ronan meets Winslet at every turn. Her role is the secondary one, but it is a turn that invites her to use different senses and one that she relieves. For Ronan, Charlotte is a kind of ambiguous society girl – at the same time ignorant of the world around her, but with trappings of perceptual perception that complicate the ways people see her, especially Mary . The film only hints at her trauma, but speaks to Ronan’s ability to fill gaps that Charlotte feels have been fully realized early on. The first moment of physical contact between the two – innocent but not careless – is a performance marvel as Winslet’s body seems to contract, as if to protect itself from any outside force. It’s also a defining moment for Ronan, who manages to make a deliberate act come across as careless. An open / close binary is the defining one. Ronan’s exposed face while looking up at Winslet’s protected face is central to the dynamic.
It is a slow cinema but its speed is pointless. The plot becomes secondary to the ways in which “Ammonite” asks us to consider the potential value of a lesbian relationship in this cramped environment. And part of Lee’s interest is to reject any suggestion of tasteability. Like Mary, the film asks us to meet her on her own terms – all the way to the end. Lee leaves us with a moment between the two women, a non-verbal encounter, which raises more questions than anything else. But it is the burdens of our intellect, and a sharp understanding of who these women are, that make the moment feel effective and thoughtful rather than unfinished. It is part of the film’s larger dynamic that recognizes intellectual ability to unexplained depth and only through suggestion. There is a wealth of context here, where even the secondary characters (Fiona Shaw, Gemma Jones, Alec Secăreanu, James McArdle all craft sharp characters in short roles) have shades of great depth. “Ammonite” is not typical, nor is it easy. But its roughness is a worthwhile challenge.
Ammonite is available for streaming and purchase on PrimeVideo and other streaming services.