Ammonites are fossils that are used to mark geologic time. Resembling the spirals that contain the golden ratio, they are ripe for parable and illustration. The film Ammonite, from writer/director Francis Lee, tries to capture that depth of meaning, but much like its namesake fossil, it is common and unexceptional.
The film holds fossils at its core. This is not a vague metaphor about antiquated notions of sexuality or history, though both of those interpretations are on the table; rather, the film literally revolves around the collection and refinement of fossilized creatures. Mary (Kate Winslet) is a known but not renowned fossil hunter on the Dorset coast. She fills her days by avoiding her fellow townsfolk, expressing disdain for tourists, tending to her mother (Gemma Jones), and scouring the beach for fossils. Robert (James McArdle) comes to the coast to learn under Mary’s tutelage, and the location has the added benefit of allowing his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to follow doctor’s orders and get sea air in her lungs. This is the 1840s, and that was cutting-edge medical advice.
Soon, Robert leaves to travel, and asks Mary to teach Charlotte to hunt fossils in his place. Mary is hesitant, but is in no position to turn down money. After Charlotte falls ill one day and Mary is designated her caretaker, their relationship begins to shift into desire.
While it might be easy to write off the two women’s romance as a dramatic example of the Florence Nightingale effect, Ammonite tries its darndest to convince us that these wildly different women have chemistry. There are longing looks across the beach and a shared excitement over a massive fossil find, but beyond that, there is little to unite them beyond lust and convenience. Granted, those factors drive nearly all Hollywood romances, but it is Ammonite’s insistence that it is being clever that makes it a bit rough.
What ultimately saves the film from becoming a tedious bodice-ripper is both Winslet and Ronan’s performances—and their clothes. Winslet is dressed as an exaggerated vision of a woman who has neither the money nor the inclination to care about her appearance or likability. Her hair is dull and muddied in color. She does not wear the corsets of her contemporaries. And though she is often digging through rocks by the shore, she has not gone so far as to completely abandon skirts and dresses.
Ronan, conversely, is dressed to reflect her emotional status. When we first meet Charlotte she is in mourning and decked in black and lace, not suited for digging or exploration. But as she adjusts to life without her husband, and she is no longer defined by relationship status or reproductive health, she starts dressing in color and more rough-and-tumble fabrics. She is ready to live her life.
This is the work of a skilled costume designer. Clothes can and should tell us more about characters than their words, but the issue in Ammonite is that signifiers like costuming and lighting are so obvious while the characters are so subtle. This mismatch feels both like a heavy hand and an absent ship captain, to mix metaphors.
There are, however, hints of more interesting stories adjacent to Charlotte and Mary’s quickly congealing attraction. A townswoman named Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw) brews salves, tends to her gardens, and makes Mary more uneasy than even the stuffiest social obligation. There is definitely a history there, and from snippets, we learn it is far more engaging than the film’s central storyline.
We also get whiffs of Mary’s difficulties in her profession, both as a woman and as a person of modest means. From having to sell her largest fossil find, to making picture frames out of shells for tourists, to having her name pasted over on fossil identification cards, it’s easy to see why she may be hiding from the world. We get too little of that story to be fully drawn in, but it would have been worth exploring.
It is unfair to judge a film for what it does not tell, rather than focusing on what it does. But the story here is not enough, and allows the mind to wander. Seeing these fleeting glimpses of the richer world of Mary, only to have her primarily defined by her attraction to Charlotte, is a disservice to the character and a frustration for the viewer.
Ammonite does deserve credit for showing a love story between two women, when that is still a novelty in a mainstream motion picture. The women are tender and caring toward one another, and the positive relationship for both of them is a testament to the growing acceptance of prominent queerness on screen. It just would have been better coming from two characters who had organic chemistry and a director who was able to find confidence in subtlety.