I hate making the same comparison as every other film critic, but sometimes two movies bear so many similarities that ignoring it only makes you look stupid. Thus, Ammonite and last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire are both period lesbian romances set near the seacoast in a secluded community that offers not much outside interference. They both take an austere approach to their subjects, determined to strip away the frippery of other period films. This comparison is unflattering to the British movie out this week at Grand Berry Theater, because its French counterpart is superior on just about every count.
Set in the 1840s, the film begins with paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) hunting for fossils on the beaches of Lyme Regis, on the southwestern tip of England, and locating a rare specimen of the extinct mollusk species called ammonite. At her mother’s curiosity shop, wealthy gentleman scientist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) strides in wishing to learn the craft from Mary, who has already made her name in London with her scientific discoveries. No sooner does he start than he leaves on a lengthy expedition on the continent, depositing his neglected wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) with Mary. In the parlance of the time, Charlotte is suffering from melancholia, and her husband offers to compensate Mary for giving his wife some female companionship. Soon Charlotte is in Mary’s bed, only not like that — she falls desperately ill after a doctor-prescribed bath in freezing seawater.
The real-life Mary Anning had a career even more remarkable than the film lets on, discovering the first complete ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons. Though male colleagues often took credit for her findings, they nevertheless influenced the work of Charles Darwin. Writer-director Francis Lee doesn’t tell us that the historical Charlotte Murchison was in fact older than Mary by a decade, nor that she would later become a geologist in her own right, and there is no evidence for any sort of romance (as we understand that term) between the women.
These liberties with the lives of the movie’s historical subjects would not matter so much if the film offered us a vibrant drama. Alas, it’s all too easy to use Portrait of a Lady on Fire as a stick to beat this movie. Where that film gave us lush and beautiful visuals, this movie is drab. Where that film’s lengthy silences were charged with meaning, this one’s are empty. Where that film had its characters trembling with repressed emotion, this one is flat. Where that film used its deliberate pace to great effect, this one is just too slow off the blocks. Lee earned plaudits for his 2017 debut feature God’s Own Country, which was a contemporary romance between two men, but the historical setting here appears to bottle him up. His refusal to resolve the story is one more point of frustration. The film feels Victorian in all the wrong ways.
To be fair, the lengthy sex scene between the two women proves that a gay male director can film a lesbian sex scene. Still, this has too little connection to the rest of the story. The love between the two women is supposed to blossom out of mutual loneliness and Charlotte’s admiration for a woman who has actual intellectual accomplishments, but these two actresses seem off their game. They don’t convey enough of the difference between the dour women they start out as and the ones transformed by love near the end. The film only explodes into life once, during a climactic scene when Charlotte invites Mary to London to give her a gift, only for it to blow up in her face. That comes too late. Too often, Ammonite feels like one of its main character’s relics trapped under glass.
Starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Written and directed by Francis Lee. Rated R.