The story whisks us back to 1840s England, when Anning (Kate Winslet) is an accomplished paleontologist. Indeed, her work pushes the boundaries for how much respect a woman of that time could accrue. Still, Anning toils on a cold, windy coastline, slowly sinking into a melancholic fog. She’s chilly toward any visitors, a fact that’s apparent upon the arrival of Dr. Murchison, a bourgeois scientist (James McArdle), and Charlotte, his emotionally fragile wife (Saoirse Ronan). Dr. Murchison whips out his checkbook in the hopes of tagging along for her excavations, so that maybe he can osmotically absorb a little of her talent. Anning is so broke she can’t turn it down, even when the job expands to cheering up the man’s wife.
As you might guess, Mrs. Murchison’s despair prompts Anning to confront her own storm clouds. Soon, both women begin to thaw toward one another, causing a platonic friendship to blossom into something more. As their physical relationship gains heat, the women must face what they have and deal with the reality that it may not be meant to last.
To be clear, Ammonite is a verrry slow burn. Everybody knows where this story is headed, but writer-director Francis Lee isn’t shy about guiding us down the scenic route to get there. (And “scenic route” is no exaggeration. Stéphane Fontaine’s frothy, oceanic cinematography…¡qué bonita!) I’m a giant movie nerd, so I don’t mind a good movie that lovingly draws out its plot. It’s like watching the wheels and gears of a well-made watch snap into place. At the same time, I know my joy may not be everyone’s, so I’ll just leave this on the stoop: Some viewers may find this film too slow and talky to stay with it.
Much of Ammonite‘s grip gets supplied by Winslet and Ronan, as the potent couple. Winslet pulls Anning into an emotional shell, with only stolen moments of warmth and vulnerability. Meanwhile, Ronan’s Charlotte begins the story as a brittle, broken young woman, only to be healed by the unlikeliest of saviors. Both actresses bring a powerful conviction to their roles, again proving why they’re two of the most talented players out there. (I can’t imagine a movie these two wouldn’t elevate.)
Ammonite is a fascinating character study, centered around a lonely woman whose greatest passion lies with the lonely work she does. In many ways, the film mirrors Anning herself: Moments of sadness and frustration mingle with curiosity and compassion to form a bittersweet cinematic experience. Ammonite will make you ache for the things that might’ve been.
120 min. R.