Film Review – Ammonite (2020)

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star in Francis Lee’s new historical drama, but can they bring chemistry to the geology?

Ammonite, Francis Lee’s follow up to his directorial debut, the critically acclaimed God’s Own Country (2017), tells a fictionalised story of British palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). Taking place some years after her big discoveries, Mary, austere and coarse, runs her shop and searches the beaches of Lyme Regis for ammonites and other fossils to sell to tourists.

A visiting man with an interest in geology, James McArdle’s Roderick Murchinson, arranges for his wife, Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte Murchinson, to stay in Lyme and accompany Mary with some of her work whilst he travels abroad. Soon after he leaves however, Charlotte takes ill and Mary and her mother (played by Gemma Jones) care for her in their house. Soon the two women strike up a friendship and quickly become even more than friends.

I was a really big fan of God’s Own Country and got quite excited as this film began with many tonal similarities. Not only does it feature Gemma Jones again as the matriarch figure, but Ammonite is just as harsh and severe, with no sugar coating as we watch Mary trying to pull rocks from the muddy cliffs and falling hard as a result. Francis Lee has clearly cultivated a distinct and recognisable style which feels fresh and interesting – the hand held, shaky camera; the long swathes of silence.

The film has interesting elements. I liked Anning’s characterisation especially, I felt that I understood her – her anxieties and her history – I also think the decision to tell this story makes an important statement. There has been some criticism directed at the concept because there was no evidence that Anning had female lovers however Francis Lee has done the opposite of what so many straight filmmakers have done in “straightening” history – he’s “queered” it – and that makes a fascinating statement about how we perceive history.

That being said, I do have issues with the film itself – primarily in the lack of chemistry between the leads. Both Winslet and Ronan give excellent performances however I found it difficult to become invested in their relationship – I also thought some of the intimate scenes felt awkward and therefore overly long without cause to be. The cast of the film is excellent, with supporting roles from the aforementioned Gemma Jones as well as Fiona Shaw and God’s Own Country’s Alec Secăreanu. However, I feel like this supporting cast is vastly underused. A storyline regarding Secăreanu’s Dr. Lieberson and his feelings for Anning is hinted at but goes nowhere and is dropped almost as soon as it arises. The history between Anning and Shaw’s Elizabeth is similarly underdeveloped and unexplored.

Overall that would be my biggest criticism, the whole screenplay feels underdeveloped. The storyline is too simple – emotionally simple that is. If you look at it side by side with God’s Own Country, the plots are very similar – a lonely and troubled individual with a sickly parent strikes up a relationship with an outsider who softens their edges – however the reason God’s Own Country works and Ammonite doesn’t is because the characters in the former are so fully realised and their emotional depth utilised to the max. The former feels personal, the latter does not.

Stylistically, Ammonite is excellent and it’s nice to see the strength in Lee’s aesthetic choices – I personally really enjoy the long swathes of silence in his films. If there had just been a little more development at the writing stage this film could’ve been excellent, alas it doesn’t quite hit the mark for me.

★★★


Drama, Biography | UK, 2020 | 15 | Digital HD | 26th March 2021 (UK) | Lionsgate Films | Dir.Francis Lee | Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, James McArdle, Alec Secareanu