Movie Review: Kate and Saoirse shimmer in the titillating but torpid “Ammonite”

“Ammonite” is an explicit and seriously sexy sex scene wrapped in a dull period piece that illuminates neither the characters nor the titular fossils that bring them together.

It’s a fine acting showcase for Oscar winner Kate Winslet and future Oscar winner Saoirse Ronan. But writer-director Francis Lee’s speculation on the sexuality of a famous 19th century British fossil collector and spinster trumps all other considerations. That results in a film of over-familiar soap operatic tropes and abrupt, illogical turns that play like a screenwriter’s lapses.

You can still find nautilus (Ammonite) fossils that Mary Anning was the first to find, study and identify in the British Museum. She was a solitary proto-paleontologist, prowling the beaches and cliffs of Lyme Regis in the first half of the 19th century, collecting and selling fossils to support herself and her widowed mother in the Age of Victorian splendor and discovery, and Dickensian poverty.

Winslet plays Anning late enough in life that the die has been cast. She eschews company, indulges her mother (Gemma Jones) and ventures out each day to find rocks that hide the remains of ancient creatures.

We don’t need a close-up of her fingernails to see the dirt crammed under them. We see the simple meals, the chores and routines of two women just scraping by, their only customers gentlemen “scientists” in an era when amateur enthusiasm could park you in that elite class of thinkers.

She’s already in the British Museum, which is why a budding paleontologist named Murchison (James McArdle of “Mary Queen of Scots,” which starred Ronan) comes to her wanting to “learn all I can” from this “impressive deity of Lyme.” He’ll pay her to take him fossil hunting.

His morose, quiet and overshadowed wife Charlotte (Ronan) is with him. Withdrawn after losing a baby, unhappily dismissed by a husband who has her on a tasteless diet and boring trip, he may say “I want my bright, funny, clever wife back.” But we wonder.

And as she’s such a drag on his travels, might he pay the reluctant Annings to “care for an invalid” and keep her while he traipses through the continent? Grumpy Mary agrees.

Charlotte has no clue about domestic chores, and hasn’t the strength for them, at first. They rub each other the wrong way until the day the “invalid” gets her hands dirty and starts to contribute. And we all know what’s coming when frail Charlotte forgets the class differences, turns considerate over Mary having to watch over her from a chair each night and says “We should share the bed.”

Lee, who directed the gritty rural gay romance “God’s Own Country,” incorporates plenty of period detail into this grey landscape with its grey seas, grey cliffs and grey skies. Charlotte’s been encouraged (by her husband) to “bathe in the sea.” That entails a “bathing machine” (an open-floored wagon eased into the surf, preserving a lady’s modesty) and of course leads to that 19th century malady above maladies — “a fever.”

The blossoming of a love affair isn’t all naive and innocent. We get the idea that this isn’t Mary’s first outing (Fiona Shaw is a local woman of property and “experience”), and that curdles into jealousy.

The sex scene is “Blue is the Warmest Color” explicit, so explicit that it’s the centerpiece of the film and considering how little we learn of the women’s lives and the state of the science, basically its entire reason for existing.

Of course, the entire affair is not proven, which is no fatal failing to anyone but a historian. But what comes after the passion is abrupt, irrational and obviously the hamfisted efforts of a screenwriter trying to “explain” how this didn’t endure or become more public and provable, and failing miserably.

The rare pairing of talent this esteemed in a project tailor-made for them makes the blundering “Ammonite” a singular disappointment of the season, awards bait without a hook to dangle from.

MPA Rating: R for graphic sexuality, some graphic nudity and brief language

Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle and Fiona Shaw

Credits: Written and directed by Francis Lee. A Neon release.

Running time: 1:57

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