The 400-Word Review: Ammonite
By Sean Collier
November 13, 2020
The early word on “Ammonite,” a new drama starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as unlikely lovers in 19th-century England, comes almost exclusively in the form of a pointed comparison. In short: “Ammonite” is “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” in English, with famous people.
Ordinarily, comparing a movie to a similar — if little-seen — foreign-language film wouldn’t be much of a story; resonances and synchronicity across the filmmaking world are common. In this case, the convergence is just too close, especially considering that the films are being distributed by the same studio a year apart.
Back to that in a bit; for now, let’s put “Portrait” aside and deal with the new film. Winslet plays Mary Anning, a real-life paleontologist who collected fossils along England’s southern coast. A life of solitude and hardship has left her surly and independent; when a wealthy amateur scientist (James McArdle) begs for tutelage, she accepts only because he pays well.
After a few weeks, the dandy departs, leaving behind his ailing wife, Charlotte (Ronan). Anning takes her in with a begrudging sense of duty; as the days pass, however, she’s taken with the younger woman, who is all too eager to connect with someone other than her passively domineering husband.
It’s a tale that is invariably gripping — two people who love one another in a time and place that won’t allow it — even when, as is the case in “Ammonite,” the story unfolds very slowly. (You could run to the corner store between most spoken lines.) Winslet and Ronan are both quite good; Winslet impressively restrains and compacts her trademark fire, while Ronan gives a lusty, demanding performance not yet seen in her career.
If you didn’t see “Portrait,” it’s quite a good film. If you did, it’ll feel like a hasty remake.
The starkness of the comparison lies mostly in “Ammonite” being the product of boutique distributor NEON, who released “Portrait” less than a year ago. NEON is proudly selective with their projects, so it’s confusing why they would repeat themselves immediately — particularly with a film that, unfortunately, is several shades inferior to its predecessor. “Ammonite” has great performances; “Portrait” has, well, everything.
Writer/director Francis Lee shows promise, and could probably find subject matter that would lead him to an excellent film. Hopefully, that subject matter will be found down a path that hasn’t just been walked.
My Rating: 7/10
“Ammonite” is available via digital on-demand services.