The term “ammonite” refers to a group of extinct mollusks that were often protected by an outer spiral shell. Ammonite is also the title of the new film starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Since this is the first time these two amazing actresses have shared the silver screen, it’s only natural to wonder whether the material was worthy of their collaboration.
Ammonite is a fictionalized May-December romance between two women on opposite ends of Britain’s 19th century class structure. The lower caste and older of the two, played by Winslet, is a historical figure, Mary Anning, the renowned fossil collector and paleontologist. Shot on location in her coastal hometown of Lyme Regis, an area known for its wealth of fossils, Mary ekes out a humble existence for herself and her mother, played by Gemma Jones, by hunting down and selling her fossilized curios to wealthy tourists. Occasionally she makes an extraordinary find, such as the skull of an Ichthyosaurus, one of which we see being put on display at a museum in the opening scene.
We’re first introduced to Saoirse Ronan’s character, the depressed and forlorn Charlotte Murchison, as she accompanies her husband, Roderick, to Mary’s little shop. Roderick, a priggish London gentleman played by James McArdle, is an archeologist who wants to learn how Mary discovers and excavates her fossilized treasures, and he pays her handsomely for the honor. After his tutelage comes to a close, he offers her additional compensation to watch over Charlotte for a few weeks while he continues on with his “archeological tour of the continent.” Needing the money, she reluctantly accepts. Mary’s taciturn and ill-tempered persona, which she wears as a protective shell like one of her fossilized ammonites, begins to crack when she’s thrust into the role of caretaker after Charlotte falls ill.
Ammonite’s director, Francis Lee, also wrote the sparsely worded script. Some scenes play out with little to no dialog, but much is said through Lee’s creative use of visuals. Eggshells, potato skins and rocks come to symbolize Mary’s guarded exterior, and the cracking, peeling and chipping away of those aforementioned items reflect the two women’s discovery of their inner selves. The cinematography is often striking, capturing gorgeous seaside tableaus and indoor scenes beautifully lit by nothing more than the warm, orange glow of candlelight. And, of course, Winslet and Ronan are always a joy to watch, especially when they share a wordless moment together, as in one intimate scene where Charlotte dabs a little of her perfume on Mary while their eyes express their unspoken feelings.
Story-wise, Ammonite doesn’t break a lot of new ground. In fact, much of it plays like a warmed-over version of Céline Sciamma’s outstanding film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. So, to get back to the question I alluded to at the top of this review, does Ammonite take full advantage of the combined talents of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan? The answer is, not entirely, but Ammonite is still worth your time just to watch their characters tackle the challenges and complexities of human connection, particularly if you have the same discerning eye Mary Anning had for finding the beauty lurking beneath the surface of the familiar.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.