This year’s Ammonite and last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire have a lot in common. Both of them are about a forbidden romance between two women, one a master of her craft and the other miserably attached to a man, unfolding in a quiet corner of industrial revolution-era Europe. They also get the same, specific message across: if you hire somebody to walk somebody else down the coastline as friends, those two people are going to fall in love. It’s a historical fact, if indie dramas are to be believed.
Ammonite differs from Portrait in that it has basis in actual history. Mary Anning, played here by Kate Winslet, was a real paleontologist whose findings became world-renowned in the scientific community, though she didn’t see much of that renown herself—her womanhood prevented her from getting the credit she deserved during her lifetime. Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan, was a highly educated woman who inspired her husband to become a geologist, a vocation for which he became famous. There’s no historical evidence that Charlotte and Mary were romantically linked, but Ammonite writer-director Francis Lee knows that nothing brings people together like being overlooked.
Watching the movie, though, you never get the sense that Charlotte and Mary are historical figures. Ammonite is a low-key, muted drama—in tone and in color—that cares little for biographical detail. Lee seems to have been inspired by some element of these women’s lives that he felt was inimitable in fictional characters, so it’s only them that can carry out this story, regardless of how it deviates from reality. Whatever element ostensibly affected Lee is lost on the screenplay, though. Both the story and the dialogue are rather threadbare. The story’s themes are superficial enough to convey through obvious metaphors, which the film does on occasion—a woman feeling trapped in her marriage gazes forlorn at a caged bird, for example—and these obvious touches lament the forces that harden the hearts of the persecuted. But mostly, the story is a stage set for two magnificent performances.
And who needs dialogue for that? The silent language that Winslet and Ronan have cultivated for this film is one of the most distilled expressions of love in recent memory. Through innumerable, unmeasurable coded looks, the actors fly through paragraphs, pages, monologues of sentiments that never hit the script. Some people were meant to be together; some people were meant to act together—and Lee was the right director to foster a space for Winslet and Ronan’s body language to reach such sensual heights.
Even their sex scene, which regrettably feels cut together for a male audience the film won’t get, overcomes the hands of its collaborators through the sheer assurance that Winslet and Ronan grant each other with their bodies. Ammonite might live on the strength of its performances, but its heart is beating healthily. It’s the most modest and plaintive of a venerable genre: the great Kate Winslet romance movie.