Ammonite review: An uninventive, uninteresting lesbian period drama

Ammonite. Image courtesy NEON
Ammonite. Image courtesy NEON /

Ammonite is a dreadfully slow and painfully unoriginal queer-centric period drama, trying (and failing) to replicate the magic of Portrait of a Lady on Fire

We don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire is one of the biggest queer films of the 21st century – up there with Brokeback MountainMoonlight, and Call Me By Your Name. As such, a film of its caliber, prestige, and near-universal acclaim was bound to inspire reactionary films in its wake, which is what we assume happened with Francis Lee’s Ammonite.

Unlike POALOF, however, Ammonite is dreadfully uninteresting and despite its megawatt star power, the film just isn’t gripping or original enough to make it feel like anything more than a cheap rip-off of a far superior film.

Starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite is the semi-biographical tale of British paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) who falls in love with Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), the wife of one of Anning’s colleagues when she moves in with her to recover from a crippling illness.

Anning is a standoffish loner type who prefers to keep to herself and seems to find pretty much everyone else’s company loathsome. Though she initially resents Charlotte’s presence, as they spend more time together, the pair develop a romantic relationship, but sadly any and all attempts at creating any kind of spark in this film fall utterly flat.

It’s difficult to pinpoint one single aspect of where Ammonite has gone wrong – it’s more of a buildup of a series of unfortunate choices. The first, and most pressing, is that Ammonite is a painfully slow film that seems to presume it has the audience’s interest from the getgo instead of working to earn it. Watching two frail 19th-century paleontologists walk along a windy beach in silence collecting rocks isn’t exactly riveting stuff, and the plot’s lack of urgency would normally be supplemented in a film like this by strong dialogue or artful characters.

Unfortunately, Ammonite has neither.

Between its two leads, Anning is undoubtedly the stronger character – you get a feel for exactly the type of person Mary is mere seconds after we meet her, and she stays consistent throughout the film, thanks to a steady performance from Winslet. However, she’s the type of withdrawn, flat character that would normally be brought out of her shell by a more vibrant, interesting personality to contrast her with, but instead, she’s paired with Charlotte Murchinson, who is quite possibly the blandest romantic lead in recent memory.

For the first hour of the film, Charlotte has no personality other than the fact that she is sickly, and once she recovers from her illness, her character just seems to float from scene to scene without any real intention or drive. She’s not interesting, she’s not particularly intelligent or funny, nor is she likable – in fact, the only thing remarkable about her character is just how unremarkable she is. We can’t speak particularly highly of Ronan’s performance either, but she’s swimming upstream when trying to bring depth to a character with so little agency.

As bad as Charlotte is on her own, though, she’s no better when playing romantically opposite Mary. Although it’s Mary’s character to be chilly towards virtually everyone, as we were watching we just couldn’t help but think about how little chemistry the two women have, and that by all accounts this is not a couple that is in any way interesting or even passable as two people who would voluntarily get together. Their relationship goes from hatred to reluctant caretaking to romance with virtually no development between the stages, resulting in a rushed and messy dynamic that can barely be called an ark.

The only moments of true passion or energy between the two of them are the sex scenes – and funnily enough, that’s also where there’s the least amount of dialogue. It’s stunning how a film can so entirely miss the mark of what it’s trying to emulate – where Portrait of a Lady On Fire created a vibrant world entirely revolving around its two protagonists, Ammonite crafts a narrative where its leads are the least interesting (and least likable) characters in the film.

We’re not exaggerating – the few high points of the film Alec Secareanu’s Dr. Lieberson, and Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth Philpot, both of whom are minor characters that are supposed to get in the way of our two star-crossed lovers. However, when they’re onscreen, we are more drawn to them than we ever were to Mary and Charlotte, which in turn creates an odd dynamic when we care more about the supporting players than we do the leads.

Secareanu’s Dr. Liberson is an archetype we frequently see in period romance – the gauche, attractive suitor who is ultimately rebuffed, but Secareanu brings so much charm to the role that you can’t help but adore him. Fiona Shaw (as with most projects she’s in) is also a highlight as one of Anning’s few friends but as fun as she is to watch, her character feels like it could be cut out of the narrative entirely without consequence.

Ultimately, Ammonite feels like the kind of relic Mary Anning might have dug up on one of her frequent trips to the beach. It’s not vibrant or passionate, nor does it have any nuance or depth to speak of. It’s bland, predictable, and entirely the type of stifling queer period drama that would’ve come out 20 years ago and been deemed “brave”. But it’s 2020, and we’ve moved past films like this – no matter how you slice it, Ammonite just isn’t worth your time.

Next. POSSESSOR: An unsettling thriller from Brandon Cronenberg. dark

Have you seen Ammonite? What’s your favorite period romance? Sound off in the comments below.