Home Film ‘Ammonite’ Review – Winslet is Transfixing in this Mystifying Romance

‘Ammonite’ Review – Winslet is Transfixing in this Mystifying Romance

by Ben Rolph
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan hold hands together closely while both wearing passionate red clothing as seen in Ammonite.

At times the Lyme Regis-set film sounds a little like the British radio program The Archers, perhaps down to its setting, but all of the external characters surrounding our leads feel like the lived-in characters out of that very radio show. Nevertheless, Ammonite is a transfixing film. It’s completely compelling and neatly told, yet you might wonder what a few tweaks could have done? Perhaps it would have been absolutely outstanding?

Kate Winslet gives a grizzled performance, backed by the ever-great Saoirse Ronan. Although the two are exceptional, Winslet is specifically fantastic from the start, whereas Ronan is sidelined and feels less than fully rounded until the latter half of the film. You could find the focus on her husband to be the cause and naturally, due to the times, it makes sense, though his extensive screen time feels contrived. Like this, there are segments that could have been cut out or retooled to work more nuance into the film. The final frame is beautifully metaphoric, but the scenes prior take away part of the mysticism of the couple’s forbidden love. 

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan closely lock faces before an intimate kiss as seen in Ammonite.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in ‘Ammonite’ courtesy of the BBC

Writer and director Francis Lee does a rather grand job of bringing everything together. Directing-wise, it’s quite well-done, yet you can’t help but feel a sense of ego permeating throughout a few unnatural scenes. The primal reason for these frustrations is notably down to Ammonite being full of such talent that slips away at times. Even so, visually, the film’s aesthetics are gorgeous. Ammonite’s production design is brilliantly glamorous and grungy, amplifying the societal difference in its characters. Along with this, it indulges in endless costumes of divine beauty and detail. It is Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography that plays a key role in molding these elements. The images produced have contradictory moments of both grit and luminosity. Muddied-up scenes are in contrast to the grandeur and elegance of its high societal moments. Also, mostly filmed with a little shake, the stillness of its static shots really do leave a memorable impact. 

You can’t help but think of Portrait of a Lady on Fire when lamenting about Ammonite. They are two very different films, one certainly far better than the other, but their themes do collide. If you were to compare the two, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is evidently superior in all aspects of its filmmaking craft. Seeing that they share similar themes, it is evident that with someone like Céline Sciamma directing, this would have been a very different film here. At the end of the day, the two don’t deserve to be compared, still with their basis being inherently similar, it’s hard not to.

The frustration that one feels with a near-perfect film like Ammonite can have the effect of disappointment, but after time to lament, it becomes clear that it’s still very good. Only if a few things were different could it have been everything you wanted it to be. There are many aspects that are pulled off to the highest standards: acting, cinematography, and production design to name a few. This leaves Ammonite as a mystifying and beautiful gaze into a world of seaside-induced romanticism. More than amply-made, it is unfortunate to see the faults double as frustrations that point to a near perfect film.

★★★★☆

Ammonite was selected to play at the 2020 BFI London Film Festival! Following its limited theatrical release, it will be available on VOD December 4.

Follow Senior Film Critic Ben Rolph on Twitter: @THEDCTVSHOW

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