2020 Catch-Up: Ammonite

By Christian DiMartino

Spike Jonze’s masterpiece Adaptation followed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) as he was given the near impossible task of writing a film adaptation of a novel about flowers, and somehow making it interesting. That’s kind of what I picture the writing process of Francis Lee’s Ammonite looking like. Kaufman, who also wrote the film Adaptation, tries his hardest to stick to the facts of his story, without going bombastic and including fiction. That’s not to say that Lee has done anything fictional in Ammonite, yet here is a film that focuses on rocks. Yes, that’s correct, rocks. Yet the rocks are really just a placeholder for the lesbian romance that comes into play. One can get the sense that Lee started with a biographical tale involving rocks, and then thought, eh, let’s throw the lesbians into it for flair.

Obviously, this is a joke. Well, maybe. Ammonite focuses both on the rocks, and on the lesbians. One aspect of the story is interesting, and another aspect is not. Let’s just leave the boring one to the imagination. Here is a film that is certainly easier to admire than to enjoy. It’s beautifully filmed and not necessarily poorly crafted (if you’re going to do a romance, the romance has to be earned, at least). Yet the problem with Ammonite lies with those bloody rocks.

The film has been compared to 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, another costumed lesbian drama. Didn’t see it, but surely the comparison is earned. Set in 1840s England, the film follows acclaimed fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, one of the finest actresses on the planet), who is acclaimed but also oddly overlooked. She is kind of cold and distant; a hard worker who doesn’t want her work ethic tampered with. James McArdle’s Roderick notices that his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, another one of the finest actresses on the planet) has been feeling extremely depressed, so he asks Mary if Charlotte can tag along with her on her strolls on the beach. Mary is against the idea at first, and even tells Charlotte that she wishes she wasn’t there. Yet the more strolls they take, the closer they get, and the more they fall in love.

A film romance, admitted, does need to be earned. The romance in Ammonite is earned, not just because of the strong work from Winslet and Ronan, but because Lee takes his time developing it. The trouble with Ammonite though is that the reason to watch the film is the romance, and yet there’s nothing of particular interest holding our interest until we get to it. About 10 years ago, a film called Salmon Fishing in the Yemen was released, and it was about, you guessed it, salmon fishing in the Yemen. Which sounds tremendously boring, but it actually wasn’t. What worked about the film was that it had charm and a sense of humor; the characters were interesting enough to where you were okay watching a movie about salmon fishing in the Yemen. I believe Mary Anning was a real person, so there is only so much that can be done. Unfortunately though what is ultimately done in Ammonite feels like a slog at times. It takes 70 minutes for Winslet and Ronan to start getting intimate, and the rest of it is rocks.

This was definitely a film that was in it for the Oscar gold, and Ronan and Winslet do hold up their end of the bargain. Their romance is intimate and kind of sexy. Once again though, this is a movie about rocks, and lesbians. The lesbians are interesting, and unless you’re into paleontology, the rocks, well, aren’t. But hey, I mean, at least the costumes look pretty good.

C

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