Mary is skeptical about the arrangement but she needs the money, and maybe it would be good to have an assistant? Not that Charlotte is much help, with the younger woman’s health quickly deteriorating. Yet as Mary comes to nurse her unwanted ward, taking on an almost spouse-like role in Charlotte’s health, she and Charlotte find an unlikely kinship, and perhaps other spousal duties.
Filmed with hovering intimacy by Lee, the film tracks their burgeoning love story through excessive handheld photography. When used during scenes of Mary, and later Charlotte, on the Dorset shore dragging fossils from the seabed, this can be quite evocative. But on the whole, the approach is overly staid, with Lee’s script and drab mise en scène relying heavily on inference.
Thus Ammonite becomes as dreary as how the film chooses to interpret Mary’s work. Which is unfortunate since both Winslet and Ronan do unflinching, fearless work here. Searching for a romantic authenticity that the rest of the film lacks, Winslet and Ronan commit to portraits of silent regret and lifetimes of experiences they decided to leave unspoken.
Yet together the chemistry between Winslet and Ronan never sparks. To be sure there are several seemingly mandatory sex scenes with their obligatory nudity, but right down to the way the scenes are written and edited, with tasteful cutaways to burning candles and morning light, the impact feels more packaged for an awards season campaign than the telling of a whirlwind romance.
It is somewhat unfair to compare Ammonite to last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire—the sumptuous French film by Céline Sciamma about two lovers on the other side of the Channel—simply because they’re both lesbian love stories. There is room for countless LGBTQ+ romances in every period setting, just as there’s room for all other tales of liaisons and seaside rendezvous. But these films can still be compared purely as love stories. And while Portrait of Lady on Fire is also a quiet, almost silent film for large swaths of its running time, the passion in its exquisite frames is hot to the touch.