Sparks take a long time to fly in the careful, quiet, tense Ammonite, a lesbian love story set on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast in the mid-nineteenth century. Kate Winslet is Lyme Regis’s famous fossil collector Mary Anning, tough and unsmiling. Or, at least, she’s a version of Anning created by British writer-director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), whose earthy spin on her life is mostly imagined from fragments of evidence, like an archeologist conjuring up flesh-and-blood stories from dinosaur bones.
Mary’s life of windswept fossil-hunting is disrupted by the arrival of the younger, wealthier, married and clearly unwell Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Charlotte’s chirpy-cum-irritating fossil-fancying husband identifies Mary, who lives with her mother (Gemma Jones), as someone who can look after Charlotte for a fee, while he travels and she recovers from a bout of ‘mild melancholia’.
The strong suggestion is that she’s had a devastating miscarriage, although the script is careful with the manners and mores of the time: it’s not something that anyone would dare mention. There are other characters and relationships the reality of which we are left to unearth, including the grunting but close bond between Mary and her mother, and the tension between Mary and an older acquaintance (Fiona Shaw), who lives locally.
The film’s unsentimental view of an eccentric nineteenth-century household recalls Mike Leigh’s Mr Turner. But when it comes to the growing closeness between Mary and Charlotte, the class implications of their relationship and the general framing of a world where women and their authorship are sidelined or dismissed, the closer parallel is 2019’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
They’re interesting films to consider side by side, even if Ammonite emerges a little damaged from the exercise. But the character work here is exceptionally strong. As the inscrutable, slowly thawing Mary, it’s Winslet’s most fascinating performance in a long time, and Ronan is also impressive as the younger party in the relationship, whose naivety comes with its own tragedy. There are avenues underexplored, and stretches in the film where you wish for more insight and more depth.
Mostly, Ammonite moves slowly and quietly like a grass-chewing diplodocus, but passion and conflict emerge later on in the story, and then it bares its teeth as an angry portrait of two lovers trapped in time.
In US cinemas now and on PVOD Dec 4.