PFF 29: Ammonite

I missed going to the movies, and Philadelphia Film Festival’s drive-in screenings provide the perfect socially-distanced alternative to theaters. To catch the Oct 30th screening of Ammonite, my roommates and I piled into one of their Honda CRVs, picked up a month’s worth of calories at Shake Shack, and journeyed to the Navy Yard, a strangely laid out conglomeration of office buildings, old ships, and grassy fields.

I had imagined we’d turn the car around and watch the movie huddled in the trunk, but understandably, due to chilly weather conditions (and, I suspect, the pandemic) we all kept our car doors closed and faced the screen through our windshields. This worked out fine for the most part, despite a few drawbacks: I had to duck my head most of the movie to keep the screen in view, and every five minutes or so, the screen would become inexplicably dark, until someone remembered to wipe away the layer of condensation that had materialized on the windshield. About an hour in though, we found ourselves letting the glass stay fogged for longer and longer periods of time, because the movie behind it started to lose our interest entirely.

I had high hopes for Ammonite, a period romantic drama inspired by the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning. The movie opens on Kate Winslet as Anning hunting for fossils along the shoreline to sell to tourists; she spots one atop a beach dune, and hurts herself climbing to fetch it. Winslet does a great job at portraying Mary’s stoicism. She’s a woman passionately devoted to her craft, proud of the famed scientific body of work she’s left behind, despite now barely making ends meet. From her limited interactions with only tourists and her own ill mother, we feel Mary’s immense loneliness.

Saoirse Ronan enters as Charlotte Murchison, wife to paleontologist Roderick who seeks out Anning’s extensive fossil knowledge. But when Charlotte falls ill, he leaves her in the care of Mary instead, hoping the sea air will cure her physical and emotional (he tells Mary Charlotte suffers from “melancholia”) ailments. The two don’t get on at first, but as Mary nurtures Charlotte back to health, Charlotte chips away at Mary’s emotional walls.

The cinematography throughout the film, featuring sweeping shots of the rocky shoreline, is gorgeous. Writer and director Francis Lee also sets the precedence of silence early on (apart from the sound of crashing waves, which sometimes devolved into static over our car radio), which serves as the perfect backdrop to Anning’s loneliness and imbalance of power and uneasiness between Roderick and Charlotte.

In the absence of external noise, I would have liked some more dialogue between Ammonite’s leading women. It’s impressive that Winslet and Ronan maintain such undeniable chemistry with few words to work with. They capture their respective characters’ yearning for human connection so beautifully, without much dialogue to back it up.

There’s one passionately scripted debate between the two women toward the end of the film that hints at what Ammonite could have been. Anning rebukes a disillusioned Charlotte for feeding into a fantasy that Mary might move in with her, dually revealing Charlotte’s immaturity and Mary’s insecurities and fear of commitment. But the scene is completely unmatched by any other, and Lee left many facets of the characters unexplored in exchange for a minimal script. Mary Anning is a deeply interesting character, and I wanted so badly to know more about her elusive romantic and scientific past, relationship with her own mother, and descent into solitude.

With all this potential left untapped, Ammonite unfortunately left my roommates and I bored for a decent chunk of its duration. That being said, when Mary and Charlotte’s relationship turns physical, their passion totally juxtaposes the energy level of the rest of the movie. In particular, Winslet expresses a sense of desperation for physical touch, but also practices restraint to capture Anning’s resistance to vulnerability. Winslet and Ronan fill the whole screen with their presence, a commendable feat at a drive-in.

Winslet and Ronan outshine Lee’s lacking script, but no performance could have redeemed the minutes-long stretches of silence that plagued much of Ammonite. Lee laid a strong foundation — flawed and complex characters, cast chemistry, stunning cinematography and an attention to technical detail — for what could have been a much better movie. When Ammonite hits theaters November 13, opt to wait for its virtual release. It wasn’t worth the drive.