In the same way that World War I and II movies always seem sepia-toned, movies from coastal England always seem perpetually awash in chilly and dim deep grays and blues. In the 1840s era of Ammonite, everyone's clothing looks eternally damp, the lighting is cloud-filtered or barely illuminated by candlelight. It is not hard to see why the young wife of a visiting scientist doesn't seem to be getting any better in her struggle with melancholia.
Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), an enthusiastic fan of fossils, is in Lyme Regis (in Dorset) to visit the self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a grim woman who found an astonishing complete fossil of a "sea lizard" (Ichthyosaurus platyodon) when she was a child, which caused such waves it ended up in the British Museum. Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is like a wan ghost in her husband's shadow, staying behind while he puts on his boots to tromp around in the fossil-rich beach mud with Mary. When Murchison decides to leave town to go to the Continent, he says (rather than asks) that Charlotte will stay in Lyme Regis, and wouldn't it be grand for her to hang out with Mary to get some of her spark and health back? Both women are not at all pleased.
After Charlotte takes an ill-advised dip in the sea, Mary finds herself to be the only one around to nurse the poor pneumonia-stricken woman back to health. With all the mopping of Charlotte's sweaty brow and rubbing of a poultice to her chest, Mary finds herself slowly... slowly thawing to the younger woman. In fact, this thaw and slow building of passion is so gradual and subtle, you aren't even sure that much is going on beyond Mary's every-present glower. You get a hint that she has suppressed something deep down, however, when she stops by to visit a local woman, the exuberant and sassy Fiona Shaw in her garden of lush colors, to realize that Mary has pushed her own passions so deep down that they are in a place as muted as the English seaside.
When the passion between Mary and Charlotte finally presents itself, it comes across as a bottled-up surprise. "Wow!" I exclaimed to my partner, "Mary's going to town! Oh MY, she's going to ALL the towns!" You know that their small, suddenly perfect world will eventually be interrupted. What happens when Mr. Murchison returns?
Ammonite is undeniably a gorgeously-shot film. Talk about the sense of a place! It is helpful to watch this film under a big comforter with fingerless gloves and a mug of tea for the full ambiance. You can feel the chill of the sea air through the screen. You can feel the mud on your hands. You can even practically feel the tactile sensation of running your fingers over an alien-like fossil revealed through the careful chipping away of stone.
What is a little harder to feel, especially with the terribly slow pace and reveal, is the burbling of passions between the women. It seems rather sudden, especially with Mary's constant stewing with a combination of impatience and resignation. Healthy Charlotte is bright light, and the combo seems a little strange. It helps that it also seems a little strange to Mary, but she has obviously felt so bottled up for so long, you have to feel for her. I think she cracks a very VERY subtle smile once in the whole film—and that is at the mention of her "rocks".
If you are patient for the reveal, and you enjoy setting and ambience, you will be rewarded. If you also will watch anything with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan (like me), you be watching this anyway (they are both, unsurprisingly, incredibly good). For the wider audience, though, I feel that Ammonite will be a test of endurance. The stoicism and restraint, especially at such a glacial pace, won't be for everyone.