Ammonite builds the intrigue of its story off of one singular component; the raw intimacy and chemistry between its two characters. Character is everything in Ammonite and the only way in which this story functions is by creating an interesting and complex character relationship between these two woman. So, does it succeed?
To understand if Ammonite is telling a story of depth and intrigue we must first understand its characters, because, as I said, character is everything in Ammonite. It follows the story of two women. First, there’s Mary (Kate Winslet), a lonely but well regarded paleontologist who spends her days digging through mud, sand, and clay in search for fossils to sell to tourists in order to support her feeble mother. Mary is a strong and resilient woman that will not hesitate to put her feet knee deep in the mud to make an honest living; her hardened exterior being very much like the ammonites she collects – she’s shielding herself from pain and hurt and doing anything she can to ensure she doesn’t open up to anyone. Then there’s Charlotte (Soarise Ronan) – a refined, young, and pretty girl with elegant attire and soft disposition – she’s a go-getter as much as she is a depressive and is constantly in search of something good to be a part of her life – a polar opposite of Mary.
The thing to know about either of these characters to be frank, is that their personalities reflect the lives they lead. It’s these wildly different and conflicting personalities that makes the character chemistry in Ammonite as successful as it is, even if it doesn’t quite reach the heights of some of the more emotionally tearing romances that both Winslet and Ronan have achieved in other romance roles. Winslet and Ronan are at their best when the two characters are simply interacting normally as their opposing personalities are shown in furious battle with one another.
Much of the film encompasses Mary and Charlotte resisting the urge to be with one another; as such a relationship in those years was (to no one’s surprise) considered distasteful and wrong. Mary, as mentioned, has a hard shell, blocking all incoming attempts of connection and trying her best to just be a woman of science. Charlotte is much more receptive and open to giving in to her lust. This game of cat and mouse plays itself out for quite some time until their relationship reaches a crux. Ammonite is quite a barren film. What there is to say about it is mostly comprised of slow burn moments between Mary and Charlotte — any thematic substance exists in relatively small quantities.
Something of note is that Ammonite claims to be based on a true story, with Mary being based on acclaimed archaeologist Mary Anning — however, such a relationship between her and character (or historical figure) of Charlotte is entirely made-up. Such a relationship never existed and to some extent this is reductive to the story it is trying to tell. Regardless, the writing and character relationships in this film does work, despite it being founded nearly entirely on fiction.
The film often struggles with establishing a visual aesthetic or promoting a rich atmosphere as similar films have often relied on. We are simply left with a colour palette that is essentially, and forgive us, 50 shades of grey – honestly, there is barely any colour in this film. Ammonite still provides some gorgeous shots that highlight the gloomy shoreline and spiritless town that the film takes place in. The camera often lingers quite closely with the actors trying to capture the nuanced mannerisms that are expressed between both Winslet and Ronan.
The film does not often exhibit its 19th century set-pieces as it trusts the audience to connect the dots with minimal information rather than having the typical period piece flair. The true beauty in this film is the impeccable costume design, neatly detailed and completely consistent in all aspects of the film. As there is a lack of score throughout this film it allows more attention to what is happening on screen however there are a few violin pieces which helps capture the emotion and heartbreak of the scenes that they are played in.
Director Francis Lee manages to capture the intimacy of a fleeting relationship that felt doomed to end – much like Call Me by Your Name (2017) or Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) – but without the extensive depth and substance those latter titles exhibited. Ammonite benefits from the tender intimacy between its main actresses and the gray scenery of its rocky beachlines — but just like any ammonite fossil, it’s only the shell of something beautiful.