It’s an unusually rare director who possesses the skill of making the intangible tangible. The quality of the things we see and hear in an audio-visual work of art is manifestly apparent, but what of the quality of the things we taste, smell, touch? In Francis Lee’s 2017 breakthrough, God’s Own Country, a rich, full, lived-in landscape was brought tangibly to the screen, then through the screen, as though the damp chill of the English countryside was transported straight to our fingertips. The frenzied fluster of a sudden erotic embrace, or the vivid, violent heat of a live animal birth — all felt as real to the audience as they were to the characters.

Lee brings a similar appreciation for the sensorial to Ammonite, which is similar to God’s Own Country in ways that imply some pointed authorial signatures across both films. Both concern repressed queer characters solemnly living out onerous existences in rural England, wasting away their adulthood caring for an ailing parent, with Gemma Jones as the mother (whatever Jones has done to aggrieve Lee I can only imagine, though she’s terrific in her icy role here). The pale grey sky casts a pallid light over a dark grey slate-and-stone seaside town, the grey cliffs and stony beach beating back the grey waves. It’s a film of marvelous tactility, a microclimate unto itself. Ammonite is cold, not the bracing, invigorating freeze of the Arctic, but the wretched, soggy cold of Britain, the kind that seeps into your bones. Even when Lee allows warmth to creep into the frame or into the characters’ feelings and actions, its isolation is palpable, like a sweaty hub of heat entirely out of place in a frigid landscape.

Again, similarly to God’s Own Country, an outsider enters that landscape, stirring up sexual passion in our closeted protagonist. Saoirse Ronan is Charlotte, a young bride sent by her husband to convalesce by the sea, and whose arrival threatens to shatter the tedious, cloistered world built by Kate Winslet’s embittered fossil hunter Mary. An initially thorny, semi-professional partnership develops between the two women, with Mary’s even more embittered mother (Jones) ever near to stifle any hints toward affection. But the pair’s erotic attraction can only be withheld for so long, and an equally thorny, semi-romantic partnership results.

Where Ammonite’s tangibility peters out, however, is in adequately translating Mary and Charlotte’s emotional experiences. All that frigidity is utterly unforgiving, so even as their tentative steps toward one another become great, big brave leaps of intense passion, Lee maintains a strict remove. He’s like an objective observer to their lives, never quite letting the film become an active participant in them, which it obviously should — the film literally is their lives together. One feels he’s yielded too much to the urge to underplay, to veer as far from either the bodice-ripping tempestuousness or prim-and-proper delicateness we’d expect from a film of this kind. Its passions are earnest but Lee never delves deeply enough into Mary and Charlotte’s inner worlds to engender a similar passion in the viewer. His heart is as stony as the brittle, unfeeling rocks that Mary dutifully excavates; Lee doesn’t even appear willing to convince anyone that there’s a beating heart beneath all that cold, clammy flesh.

Eventually, there’s less a tension to how Lee will wrap up this familiar narrative than there is an encroaching realization that there may not be any satisfactory way of wrapping it up at all. And there isn’t. Lee opts for a memorable, enigmatic final shot that indicates a closure that it hasn’t actually provided — it’s artificial, distant, mistaking formality for incisiveness. It feels constructed rather than organic, bearing no real emotional or thematic meaning, thus leaving Ammonite hanging in limbo once the credits roll. Full props, then, to the cast, working with some trying material and unearthing nuances not necessarily suggested by Lee’s screenplay. All are strong, though Winslet is strongest, the very paragon of the kind of overwhelmed restraint the film as a whole aims for. She’s the most tangible thing in the film, yet she’s viewed forever at a distance by a director unconcerned with telling her character’s story. With the film’s lack of narrative originality and its false, affected, standoffish style, it appears Lee has created Ammonite with the intention of telling his own story. And alas, it’s simply not a great one.

Fine performances help to heat up this cold, distant romantic drama, which is otherwise too removed from its own story to generate much warmth of its own.
50 %
Stone Cold
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