A sluggish, moody character study, Ammonite examines the austere existence of Mary Anning, one of England's foremost paleontologists. The finely crafted film boasts plenty of atmosphere, but plays fast and loose with the facts, inventing a fictional lesbian relationship for its subject that becomes the story's focal point. The spotlight on sex cheapens this portrait of an independent, trailblazing woman whose first and only love was her work, and also overshadows the fine performances of Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. Universal's Blu-ray skimps on supplements but features a strong video transfer and exceptional audio. Despite its faults, Ammonite is worth a look for fans of the stars and period dramas. Just take the history with a big grain of salt.
Mary Anning was a real woman, but like all too many biopics throughout film history, Ammonite takes the basic facts of her professional life and weaves a wildly fictitious personal story around them. A trailblazing paleontologist in the first half of the 19th century who advanced notable theories and tremendously influenced the future of her field, Anning discovered arguably the most important fossil of her day - the complete skeleton of an Ichthyosaurus, or "fish-lizard" - on the craggy shores of Lyme Regis on England's rugged southern coast. Yet because of her gender and the shameless prejudices and arrogance of a sexist society, she didn't receive credit for much of her work during her lifetime.
Ammonite addresses this key issue, along with Anning's arduous existence and steadfast dedication to her grueling, tedious work, but the bulk of the film revolves around her passionate affair with Charlotte Murchison, a well-to-do woman who became a close friend and assisted Mary in her endeavors. The trouble is the well-documented association between Anning and Murchison was, by all accounts, purely professional. There's no evidence of a romantic - let alone sexual - relationship. In fact, there's no evidence Anning had a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone prior to her untimely death from breast cancer at age 47 in 1847.
Would Anning's austere life have made an engrossing film without the addition of a fictional liaison with another woman that's punctuated by graphic sexual encounters and emotional confrontations? Probably not, but sadly, the movie isn't particularly engrossing with them either. Brooding and slowly paced, Ammonite plods along for most of its almost two-hour running time as it strives to delineate each woman's inner conflicts. And instead of honoring the contributions of this unsung heroine, the film winds up minimizing her accomplishments much like her contemporary colleagues did, not by ignoring and rejecting her gender, but ironically by celebrating it. Writer-director Francis Lee spends so much time and energy depicting the burning carnal desires of Anning and Murchison, their lust becomes the narrative's focal point, much to the movie's detriment. It's no wonder Anning's ancestors have expressed so much displeasure over what Lee projects upon this already put-upon woman.
Mary (Kate Winslet) may be obsessed with stones and may work with stones, but she's not made of stone, and Ammonite goes to great lengths to prove this point. Her exacting and exhausting work, isolated existence with her stoic, ailing mother (Gemma Jones), and the demands of the fossils and curios shop she runs to eke out a meager living fill the hours, but can't satisfy the desperate longings churning inside her. Despite her unfulfilled needs, Mary keeps almost everyone at arm's length until geological enthusiast Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives in town with his unstable wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who suffers from "melancholia." After soaking up some of Mary's knowledge, Roderick offers her a substantial sum of money to look after Charlotte for several weeks while he goes on an expedition. The financially strapped Mary reluctantly agrees, but initially resents the pampered Charlotte, who's not used to the rigors of rural life.
Charlotte soon succumbs to illness, forcing Mary to nurse her back to health. The crisis, though, draws the women closer. Once recovered, Charlotte aids Mary in her work and becomes a respected ally. Sexual tension develops, and when Charlotte finally acts upon it, a passionate affair ensues that upends both women's lives.
I've never understood why filmmakers choose to build a movie around a real-life figure and then fictionalize his/her story. Such "creative license" does a disservice to not only the film's subject, but also the director, writer, and especially the viewer, who may have no familiarity with the story's central character. If the idea is to shine a spotlight on a little-known yet historically relevant human being, then let that life speak for itself. If it's vital and interesting enough on its own to warrant a film treatment, then why romanticize it, why inflict the perspectives and agendas of the writer and director upon it, and why disrespect that person's legacy? If Mary Anning never had an intimate relationship with another human being, that's part of her story that should be embraced, not discarded. And if it's important for whatever reason to fabricate a lover, don't make that person - be it a man or a woman - the film's focal point.
Lee obviously disagrees, and his decision to go all in and construct two lengthy, explicit sex scenes around that fictional relationship severely hampers his film. Maybe he's intimating a lesbian affair was the only avenue open to women of that era who longed to escape the misogyny, domination, and constraints of a male-centric society and experience tenderness, fulfillment, and emancipation, but his preoccupation with titillation and pushing the envelope muddies that message and overshadows what could be a compelling story about two women from different backgrounds with different outlooks who meet and fall in love. The yearnful looks, cryptic expressions, silent signals, and unexpressed emotions that clutter Ammonite prevent us from truly getting to know these obviously complex and potentially fascinating women.
Yes, we need to see their passion and we need to see them break free from the asphyxiating societal restrictions that bind them, but we don't need to watch them perform sex acts on each other. Such gratuitous displays don't just take us out of the movie, they become the movie. We lose sight of the women - what they stand for, what they believe in, what they want out of life - because the film objectifies them. Lee must have felt showing the sex was necessary for some reason, but I haven't yet figured out what that reason might be. It doesn't matter whether the relationship is gay or straight, the sex needs to serve a purpose, and considering the relationship here is already a product of the director's imagination, one would think concentrating on their attraction and affection, not their voracious sexual appetites, would be sufficient.
To his credit, Lee captures the daily drudgery and stark existence of Mary and her mother, as well as the repressive society of early 19th century England and brutal, bleak landscape of Lyme Regis. (As Roderick and Charlotte walk along the massive embankment, one almost expects to spot Meryl Streep in a black cape gazing out at the sea as she did so memorably in 1981's The French Lieutenant's Woman.) He also deftly depicts how Charlotte disrupts the delicate balance of Mary's life.
The measured pacing and lack of dialogue (at times Ammonite resembles a silent film) heighten the mood, but the screenplay hugs the extremes. It's either maddeningly understated - relying on subtext and pregnant pauses to transmit ideas and emotions - or boldly wallowing in lewd and lascivious acts. Winslet and Ronan both embrace their roles and create palpable chemistry (Winslet especially files an affecting, nuanced performance), but their characters' romance and passionate interludes overshadow the fine work of these two formidable actresses.
Some thoughtful moments distinguish Ammonite, but the choices Lee makes end up sabotaging what could have been an affecting and elegant motion picture. Mary Anning may have been a mysterious woman who kept the cards that would reveal her personality close to her corset, but it's not up to Lee to arbitrarily solve that mystery. He chooses to define Mary as a lesbian, but like the men who cavalierly chose to deny her the professional recognition and acclaim she so richly deserved, that shouldn't be his choice to make.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Ammonite arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Bleak landscapes and sparse interiors define the look of Ammonite and contribute to its dour mood. The high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer faithfully renders them, as well as Stephane Fontaine's naturalistic cinematography. Excellent contrast and clarity, deep blacks, bright and stable whites, wonderfully sharp close-ups, true flesh tones, and good shadow delineation produce an often stunning picture that brims with fine details. Occasional - and very welcome - bursts of vivid color relieve the predominance of gray that often floods the screen, and despite the use of digital photography, the presentation flaunts a lovely film-like feel. The textures of various stones, fossils, ceramic figures, and costumes are crisp, palpable depth draws us into the story, and no image imperfections break the spell. This transfer hardly could be considered eye candy, but it's a solid effort nonetheless.
For a quiet movie, Ammonite boasts an incredibly active soundtrack that fully engulfs us in the rustic, primitive atmosphere of 1840s coastal England. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track possesses a distinct surround presence, with plenty of rear channel activity punctuating the on-screen drama. The early scenes on the craggy beach are especially impressive, as the sounds of the turbulent surf pounding against the shore and gusts of whistling wind completely envelop us. Potent bass frequencies supply additional impact, as do subtle yet marvelously crisp atmospherics. Trickling water, crackling fireplace embers, rain, thunder, and chirping birds all make palpable impressions as they seamlessly dance across the various speakers.
A cello solo sounds rich and full-bodied, and excellent fidelity and tonal depth enhance the understated score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran, who both earned an Oscar nomination for their music for Lion. Occasionally, the robust effects overwhelm the dialogue, making a few lines here and there difficult to comprehend (a bit of mumbling by the actors doesn't help either), but that's the only hiccup that mars an otherwise superior track. The fact that an intimate drama with limited dialogue can keep the surrounds almost constantly engaged is quite a feat, and this immersive presentation earns well-deserved kudos for the audio engineers who crafted it.
The only extra on the disc is the six-minute "The Making of Ammonite" featurette, which includes comments from director Francis Lee, actors Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, and costume designer Michael O'Connor. Lee, Winslet, and Ronan discuss the extensive preparation that preceded filming, while O'Connor addresses the period wardrobe. Winslet also talks about the movie's feminist perspective and admits Mary Anning inspired her more than any other character she has ever played. Sadly, the Ammonite trailer is not included on the disc.
Ammonite should be a movie that honors the accomplishments and personal grit of trailblazing paleontologist Mary Anning, but writer-director Francis Lee chooses instead to exploit his subject and saddle her with a passionate lesbian affair of which there is no historical evidence. Such fantasy transforms this slow-moving, atmospheric film with feminist overtones into a titillating soft-core romance that shifts focus away from Anning's real and admirable contributions. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan file typically strong portrayals, but seem as trapped as their characters in a film that doesn't give them a fair shake. Excellent video and very impressive audio immerse us in the austere atmosphere of 1840s England, but won't keep Ammonite from becoming a fossilized film in very short order. If you're a fan of Winslet and/or Ronan, Ammonite is worth a look, but you might want to look away during some of the graphic sex scenes between them.