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Millennia from now, when some unfathomable entities go sifting through the fossils of our lives, the new film Ammonite will be fine evidence of a particular time in cinema history. Directed by Francis Lee, the film (which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11) has many trappings of contemporary indie moviemaking: it’s grim, spare, and so carefully sapped of vim it can barely breathe. It’s what a lot of Serious Cinema aims to be these days, opaque and withholding in a chilly gesture toward all the passion supposedly roiling beneath the surface.
I don’t mean to be hard on Ammonite, which is a perfectly fine movie. It’s just a bit tiring to see yet another muted period piece that imagines life in the olden days as such a pallid slog. I don’t doubt that there were binding social strictures in the past; there’s plenty of documentation of that fact. But there must also have been some spirit, some looseness and expression and humor. Ammonite contains precious little of any of that, choosing instead to capture an imagined affair between renowned paleontologists Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison as a dreary still life.
Lee’s last film, the gay sheep farmer romance God’s Own Country, was also aloof at times, colored in a similar gray palette and guarded with its emotions. But there were true, glorious blooms of sentiment (and conversation!) in that movie too, brilliantly offsetting—and complementing—the brittle, wintry stuff. Those big moments arrive in Ammonite as well, but they’re too little too late, serving only as a glum reminder of what the entirety of the film could have been—and what its two terrific lead actors could have done—had Lee not turned the flame all the way down.
There’s not much known about Anning’s romantic life (Murchison was married to a paleontologist, and was friends with Anning), and Ammonite’s supposition about her sexuality has drawn some ire ahead of the film’s release. I don’t really understand that line of thinking; straight relationships are imagined for historical figures all the time, even the kind of ’shipping that this movie does. That the film has been dogged by the faintest bit of controversy belies what a staid and small movie it is.
For the most part, Ammonite is a glacial mood piece, set on the blustery coast of Dorset, where Anning spent her days digging rocks out of the sand to find the hidden imprints of long dead things buried within. There’s a gentle metaphor there, I suspect, Lee examining a woman so obsessed with life as it was without attending much to her life as it is. It’s a sad irony, one that Lee doesn’t lean too heavily on, but still could have teased out a bit more. It’s a frustration with a movie like this, that I started to want some big, cheesy monologue about why this woman loves fossils so much.
Anning is played by Kate Winset, who doesn’t need a ton of lines to communicate a depth of feeling. Her version of Anning is pinched but clearly pained, a lonely woman living with her stern, ailing mother, the both of them laden with a weary grief. Winslet does masterful things with just a slight shift in her gaze, or a tensed reaction to a person’s intrusion into her stony little sphere; she’s quite good in the film, but I yearned for her to have more moments of release and clarity. Lee goes past casting Anning as a taciturn, repressed woman and instead nearly makes her a statue.