WHAT I LIKED: Francis Lee's 'God's Own Country,' forced two gay characters together in the British countryside and had one slowly open up the other's closed-book emotions. His latest film 'Ammonite,' does virtually the same thing, only this time it's set in 19th Century Lyme Regis and is about two women who are as closed a book as each other. One is paleontologist Mary (Kate Winslet) whose only passion is her work whilst everything else seems to be an inconvenience, and the other is the depressed Londoner Charlotte (Saorise Ronan) who's thrust into Mary's care by her husband after he leaves for a trip abroad.
Charlotte is initially another annoyance for Mary, but it slowly becomes clear that the reason Charlotte's so cold to everything around her is because she's been forced to hide her emotions her entire life. She encounters a woman with whom it's clear she shares some unspoken history, her mother offers little conversation or warmth, and she's continually disrespected by the men who rely on her profession for their work. She inevitably begins to open up to Charlotte as the drama develops, and the same happens in return until the pair blossom into a forbidden romance.
It's a kind of character narrative that we've seen many times, but what makes it work so well here is that virtually everything is portrayed through small, visual moments in a very cinematic way. Sure, the film doesn't quite share the quality of Celine Sciamma's similar 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire,' which zooms in on the tiniest potential developments in characters' faces and actions to leave you on tenterhooks about what's coming next. But it does still leave most of its work to the camera; placing the pair in scenes where they hunt fossils, complete seemingly banal tasks in Mary's home, or even socialise together to develop the pair and their relationship. They never openly discuss their personal feelings - let alone their feelings for one another; instead we just get to understand them the more as we see their lives intertwine.
That's an engaging kind of minimalist cinematic language on an atmospheric level, but it requires great performances to work emotionally. Thankfully, Ronan and, in particular, Winslet absolutely excel here - both delivering appropriately cold, naturalistic performances that increasingly hint at their shared turmoil and struggle. Couple that with the cold, unforgiving backdrop of the British South Coast, and you've got yourself a successfully atmospheric and engaging character drama.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Perhaps because the characters are such closed books, and because they never truly open up to each other, it is a fairy cold viewing experience that doesn't have the emotional payoff of some more satisfying dramas of this typology.
VERDICT: As two closed-book characters are forced together to pick away at each others' layers, you'll begin to understand 'Ammonite's pair more as the drama develops. It's just a shame they never get the chance to truly open up to make for a more emotionally impactful overall experience.