It seems like it’s been a while since we’ve really seen Kate Winslet. It’s been a good decade since she turned in the kind of performance we know she’s capable of, the sort of thing she was doing semi-regularly in the first decade of the century.
Or maybe she was just saving up for her work in Ammonite. Winslet gives one of the best performances of her career as the real-life 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning, who spends her quiet life digging for fossils in the muck of the southwest England coast. We don’t need to be told that, at the time, women weren’t regarded highly in scientific circles, and though Anning was known and prominent, it was still true that other paleontologists would buy fossils off of her and pass them off as their own finds.
Mary’s shut off much of the rest of the world, outside of her mother, until one day a scientist comes to see her, bringing along his wife, Charlotte, played by the always-remarkable Saoirse Ronan. Charlotte is deeply depressed, and her husband decides to leave her in the seaside town, hoping the ocean air will be therapeutic, and also, probably, so that he doesn’t have to deal with her depression. He suggests paying Mary to take Charlotte out digging, and though Mary isn’t happy about it, she needs the money.
What develops is a romance between the two women—a somber, grown-up romance with flickering candles and the roaring sea—and as a romance the film is good, if not quite great. As an acting showcase, though, it’s top-notch. Winslet is brilliant as a woman who has turned more and more inward as she’s gone through life, but who has some small piece of herself excavated by the woman she falls in love with. Winslet conveys waves of emotion with tiny movements, in one scene expressing anger, panic, jealousy, and shame all at the same time and in just a few seconds. It’s the sort of performance most people can never reach, because so much of it is never expressed but we know it’s right there, under the surface.
Ammonite is playing this weekend at Wichita’s Mamafilm Microcinema, with strict COVID-19 restrictions in place.