The plot of “Ammonite,” a new romantic drama starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan now playing in theatres, is simple but the film is not. A complex study of love, what it lacks in plot it makes up for in masterful performances.
Set in the 1840s, Winslet plays self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning. Her scientific glory days behind her, she now supports her ailing mother (Gemma Jones) selling fossils found on a nearby beach in the barren Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. Still feeling the sting of the breakup of her last relationship with fossil-hunter Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), she has developed a an exterior as hard as the rocks she cracks open to find fossils.
When wealthy Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), whose wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) suffers from “mild melancholia,” passes through Lyme Regis, he hires Mary to look after his wife while he travels.
It’s not an easy fit. Mary is all work and no play, but needs Murchison’s money. Charlotte is used to being coddled and of getting her own way from the hired help. Soon, it becomes apparent that Charlotte’s melancholia is caused by a lack of passion in her marriage, a excitement she rediscovers with Mary.
Director Francis Lee begins the picture in a shroud of grey. Dull matte hangs over every frame of the film, echoing the icy relationship between… well, almost everyone on screen. As Mary and Charlotte’s relationship heats up, so does the movie’s visual sense. Colours are introduced and flowers, once mere stems, bloom. It’s a lovely backdrop for the blossoming of love, or at the very least, infatuation.
“Ammonite” is, first and foremost, a vehicle for two wonderful performances. Ronan and Winslet deliver austere, quiet performance but share electrifying chemistry. Their initial disdain of one another is palatable, and later, their attraction is fervid. Even when they aren’t reciting pages of dialogue, their inner most thoughts are clear and unmistakable. Every gesture and glance fills in a blank and helps move the story forward.
Despite the passion from the leads “Ammonite” feels listless for much of its running time. It’s a serious story—although apparently not based on the actual facts of the real-life Mary Anning’s life—that feels as though it is trying to exerting a sense of gravitas through spare dialogue, depiction of grief and the use fossils as a metaphor for what was once alive and vital.