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Period Drama 'Ammonite' Falls Flat With Clichéd Storytelling


The new movie Ammonite features two major stars — Saoirse Roman and Kate Winslet — and some graphic sex. But for KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU-Denver, there's not much else going on in the film.

Ammonites are fossils of chambered shelled sea creatures, like the modern nautilus. They can be 400 million years old; they’re often curved and beautiful and range from maybe an inch up to nine feet. But none of this matters much to the movie Ammonite, which has other things on its mind.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a paleontologist in the English coastal town of Lyme in the 1840s. She walks along a stony beach as the wind howls. She claws her way up a rocky hill to a possible fossil in a gray world under a gray sky. Mary – based on a real person – tends a shop with her mother where they sell paleontological doo-dads and miniature figurines to tourists. She never looks pleased with her work, her shop or herself.

A grinning gentleman walks in, full of himself, not caring that he’s interrupting a woman at work. He shows off his scientific knowledge and drops the name of the Geographical Society in London. “All the boys together,” Mary grumbles – to make sure the audience knows Ammonite is about domineering men and oppressed women. He says he wants to learn from famous Mary Anning, but what he really wants is to leave his silent, depressed, wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) with Mary while he goes galivanting in Europe. He’ll pay; Mary agrees. And from the start, on the beach, it doesn’t go well.

As Charlotte stalks off, the thing that’s clear to one and all is that the only reason she’s going off is so that she can come back, which she does quite fully.

Ever since Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, heterosexual lovemaking has become more and more graphic on screen. It’s become a cliché, and movies telegraph their coming sex scenes a long time before the great event takes place. And in the last few years, same-sex lovemaking has also become clichéd, and you can see it coming from the get-go. For the most part, Ammonite, which forgets its fossils early on, has one major thing in mind, and that’s getting these two mighty actresses in the sack together. And the movie shows a lot of them – or at least of body doubles.

Other ideas are in Ammonite’s wind – the release these two women find in each other because of how badly men treat women, and a bit about social class and the feeling of entitlement that goes with status and wealth. But that stuff is minor here. Ammonite is headed for sex, and when it’s that obvious, it’s also uninteresting. Same-sex interactions can be as uninspired as heterosexuality – unless there’s a context or a story that makes the sex matter. And Ammonite finally does not have much to tell us about anything.

On another subject: I feel obliged to say something about David Fincher’s Mank because supposedly the problem with Mank is that it’s only for people who write film criticism and teach film history – as I do. Mank is about Herman Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote maybe our greatest movie, Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles. But even for people in my line of work, Mank is a drag. It’s a trivia contest – oh look, there’s Marion Davies, the actress and lover of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. And were Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg of MGM really like that? It’s lame in-group stuff. If you don’t know about Kane and Hollywood in the thirties and early forties, the movie will likely make no sense to you.

Mank is disjointed, but not like the crystal-clear interwoven storytelling of Citizen Kane, and Mank is in black and white, but it’s hazy and imprecise, again not like the clarity and brilliance of the filming in Kane.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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