Perhaps my review of “Ammonite” should instead be a point-by-point comparison to 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” because the two films are so similar. It feels unfair to judge them side by side, but it’s inevitable because the two projects share multiple parallels in terms of tone, plot, and visuals. “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is objectively the better of the two, but there’s plenty of love about “Ammonite.” If you enjoyed one, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the other.
Set in the 1800s, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) spends her days on England’s Dorset coast hunting, cleaning, and cataloging fossils of sea creatures to help support herself and her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). She’s especially adept at finding ammonites, and while acclaimed for her work, the male-dominated scientific community refuses to share her discoveries (and often take credit). One day, a wealthy visitor (James McArdle) arrives and leaves his grieving wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s care after paying a hefty fee. Charlotte’s doctor has prescribed ocean baths and fresh seaside air, so the she tags along with Mary, who prefers to work solo. Living in different social classes and with opposite personalities, the two at first clash. But after spending so much time together, their bond soon begins to grow into an intense love affair.
Writer / director Francis Lee is no stranger when it comes to telling stories about loneliness and intimacy (“God’s Own Country”), and this period romance plays well to his filmmaking style. His storytelling is straightforward rather than delicately beautiful, and is well-suited to the film. The deliberate pacing never feels too slow, even with long stretches of silence and quiet reflection. The brooding yet intense performances carry the project, with strong turns from Winslet and Ronan that show exceptional depth and range. Winslet gives one of the best performances of the year (and of her career).
It’s always welcome to see more films that feature strong female characters, but there’s so much here that feels too familiar. I had a sense of déjà vu the entire duration of the film. I couldn’t shake the voice in my head constantly comparing “Ammonite” with “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” The former certainly is not as beautiful as the latter, even when the drab cinematography brightens after Charlotte and Mary’s first romantic encounter. The themes of desire, lust and longing for a human connection are strong in both films. Each have supporting male characters that are inconsequential to the storytelling.
“Ammonite” stands on its own two feet, however, and is a film you’ll want to seek out if you enjoy period dramas.