Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 16, 2021)
With 2020’s Ammonite, two of today’s most acclaimed actors unite. To my moderate surprise, this becomes the first time Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan have worked together, though probably not the last.
Based on a true story, Ammonite takes us to the mid-19th century. Paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) enjoyed great discoveries, but she didn’t earn the recognition she deserved.
Now in her forties, Mary struggles to make a living. Rather than search for rare fossils, she gathers common items to vend to tourists along the coast of southern England.
Into this setting comes Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), the wife of wealthy Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). Charlotte needs to convalesce, and Roderick offers Mary a nice payday if she’ll help care for his ailing wife.
Because she also tends to her sick mother Molly (Gemma Jones), Mary needs the money, so she agrees. This sets up a complicated relationship between Mary and Charlotte.
It seems prescient that Ammonite concentrates on the exploits of a woman who uncovers fossils. Perhaps as an homage to Mary’s profession, the story moves at a pace so slow that it rivals the fossilization process.
I guess I can see why Winslet and Ronan signed onto the movie, as opportunities to star in such female-centric stories don’t come around every day. In addition, Ammonite seems to give off a level of gravitas that they might churn their performances into Oscar consideration.
And maybe they will. Ammonite received a minor theatrical exhibition in the US, and given the topsy-turvy world of the COVID-19 era, who knows what this year’s Academy Awards will be like? Known talents like Winslet and Ronan can easily ride the film to nominations.
I won’t claim they don’t deserve credit for their performances, for whatever issues we find with Ammonite - and we discover plenty – the actors don’t contribute to the problems. While I can’t claim Winslet and Ronan display immense chemistry, they add credibility to their roles and play them as convincingly as possible.
Actually, Ronan impresses me here, mainly because my last few experiences with her demonstrated diminishing returns. While I liked Ronan in early efforts, her more recent flicks like Little Women showed an actor who lacked subtlety. As I said in that review, “she scowls, she frowns, she gesticulates, she flares nostrils - she does pretty much everything other than really act.”
Happily, Ronan tones down her act here and delivers a much more natural performance. Granted, some of that may stem from the role itself, as Charlotte offers little room for the emoting Ronan exhibited in Little Women, but it nonetheless comes as a relief to see that she still knows how to deliver a subdued, naturalistic performance.
Unfortunately, they find themselves with thin, lightly-sketched characters who exist more as archetypes than real people. Ammonite sets itself up as a deep tale of forbidden love, but instead, it just offers a sluggish drag.
Neither Mary nor Charlotte ever comes across as a real person. Instead, they seem like one-dimensional stereotypes, and their illicit romance lacks real passion, as it never becomes especially clear why they dig each other.
That’s because Ammonite really does fail to explore the two. We find ourselves burdened with slow, superfluous scenes that convey atmosphere and little more, a factor that makes the tale unfold at a snail’s pace and never involve the viewer.
Ammonite does offer a surprisingly graphic sex scene, so it you want to watch two of today’s most honored actresses go to town on each other, live it up! As a dramatic story, though, Ammonite fails to locate a pulse.