Maybe it's just me, but it feels like Kate Winslet has been gone for a very long time. She has, of course, been showing up in movies and TV shows, lots of them. But for about a dozen years following Sense and Sensibility in 1995, it felt like she was a pretty reliable middlebrow fixture giving good performance in well-built prestige films, with the occasional foray into something genuinely brave and creative. And in the subsequent dozen years, since winning an Oscar for 2008's The Reader (which isn't well-built at all, and if her performance isn't "bad", I am also not willing to call it"good" without some heavy qualifications), she's been somewhat adrift: a well-built but fundamentally invisible turn in a massive ensemble in Contagion, lots of stillborn Oscarbait like Labor Day and A Little Chaos, showing up to cash a paycheck and be visibly miserable as the milquetoast villain of Insurgent. So that is the first and foremost thing I would like to say about Ammonite: I treasure it for reminding me of how much I used to lover Winslet.

This is terrific performance, cutting against the grain of everything the film appears to be, and in fact is (claustrophobic Oscarbait that cares more about its social message than drama) with a sharp refusal to make a play for our admiring sympathy, a mixture of doing the expected things with the role extremely well and offering up some delightful surprises of mood and gesture. I frankly wasn't expect it - it's a period role, and it's always a bit nerve-wracking to watch her play period roles (she tends to over-intellectualise what she's doing, not so much shedding modern traits as coating them in irony, and it very rarely feels like she's approach these as characters to bring to life, rather than ideas to inhabit; even in something set within living memory, like the Mildred Pierce miniseries from 2011, I see her playing a set of concepts about midcentury American women rather than playing the woman herself, though I imagine in that case Todd Haynes was pushing her in that direction). Ammonite gets around this a little bit by imagining her character, real-life paleontologist Mary Anning, who died in 1847 at the age of 47, as someone who very decisively doesn't fit in the early Victorian world, and should come across as uncomfortably angular and modern in the context of the narrative world. But it's not just a matter of modulating Winslet's limitations as a perfomer; she's actively engaged in finding the edges of this character (and Ammonite fudges so many details of Anning's life that the figure in the movie really has to be regarded as a fictional character, albeit one made in homage to a real-world trailblazer), pushing against the movie's rather tidy frame, especially in the first third, when the film hasn't formed enough of an identity to push back. And she's doing it all while nailing a new accent, which is sometimes a difficulty for this particular actor.

Winslet is primarily the reason to see Ammonite, a movie that is otherwise fairly light on active strengths, and has had the bad luck of accidentally providing the answer a question nobody was asking, "what if Portrait of a Lady on Fire was, in fact, bad?" That's not a fair comparison, and not really an accurate one (the shared logline "lesbians in a costume drama set by the ocean" sounds way more specific than actually turns out to be the case), but it does helpfully point to the two biggest problems with the new film: it is depressing to look at, and it is next to impossible to care about the romantic pairing at its heart.

To the first of those points, I will concede for much of its running time, it makes perfect sense that Ammonite should be depressing to look at, because it is a film about depression. Mary has, by the time the film picks up, grown sick and tired of having to constantly fight for any modicum of recognition in the male-dominated new scientific field of paleontology, despite her extraordinarily career of groundbreaking discoveries, and she has largely contended herself to live as a miserable, tetchy hermit in the seaside town of Lyme Regis with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones) and her bountiful shore full of fossilised marine life, which she sells to tourists. Her quietude is ripped apart one day by the pushy young man Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who has just picked up geology as a hobby and has a particular fascination with Mary's stifled career, and desperately wants to learn from the best. He also has an even younger wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is in a state of morbid trauma following a tragic event that is strongly implied to be a miscarriage (in reality, Charlotte was older than Roderick, who was older than Anning, and the Murchisons were both active geologists before meeting Anning). If Mary is depressed in kind of generalised, "life sucks and I didn't get the career recognition I objectively deserved" way, Charlotte is actually capital-D depressed, in a "my body won't listen to my brain, not that my brain gives a shit about anything" way, which is why Roderick is rather too keen to drop her off with Mary for a few weeks while he's off having geological adventures.

So two main characters, both living little dismal grey lives, both consigned there by the jolly chauvinism of British males. And accordingly, Ammonite is an extraordinarily grey film. Director Francis Lee and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine have done a superlative job of capturing the Dorset coast under a thick, unforgiving cover of clouds: a pale grey sky through which the turbulent grey ocean roars and slaices angrily, as people in drab clothing pick their way across the feeble warmth of brown stones, in unsentimental long and medium-long shots. It is cold and wet, and while there is unmistakable beauty in its portrait of the coast, grasping at the Romantic awe of the place that inspired 19th Century landscape painters, it is not a friendly place; people do not belong there. Even sonically, the constant drone of waves (interrupted at times by the screaming crash of waves) interferes with the dialogue in a way that says, pretty unmistakably: this passionate landscape is for people.

Great stuff, but the thing is, Ammonite's screenplay, also by Lee, ends up softening that, as Mary and Charlotte fall in love and begin having sex, depicted with a rather surprising lack of squeamishness. And the visual mood simply doesn't change to go along with that. It remains a heavy, gloomy, crushing film, and while I suppose that could be because the world around the couple and their love that cannot be named also remains heavy, gloomy, and crushing, that's not really what seems to be going in. It's more like the filmmakers landed on an aesthetic that they liked and elected to stick with it no matter what. As a result, Ammonite doesn't feel like it's doing anything with style at all, more like style is just something that has been painted atop the screenplay.

The second thing, that the love story doesn't come together, is mostly down to the astonishing lack of chemistry between Winslet and Ronan, both talented actors, both within their wheelhouse, and almost preposterously unable to feign the slightest interest in each other. Winslet demonstrates more passion and fervor as she stares with intense, almost raging patience, at piles of rocks, than she does while pantomiming cunnilingus on Ronan - which isn't the slight it sounds like, given how genuinely excellent she is in the scenes where she's examining rocks. But the film does have some pretty lifeless sex scenes (the first of them interrupted by a cutaway to an ammonite fossil that is, I am fairly sure, the damned goofiest editing choice in all of 2020), and pretty lifeless canoodling scenes, and pretty lifeless "staring earnestly" scenes. Pretty lifeless all in all, and not helped by Ronan's disappointingly flat acting - she's been in enough costume dramas, love stories, and tales of women being repressed that it's not hard to guess at the precise set of tricks she's going to use to get through this part, and pretty much all of them show up; it's not a bad performance, but it's an easy one, for Ronan or for anybody. And she also seems to be letting her hats wear her, not the other way around.

If Ronan has no real inner spark at all, Winslet is trying so hard in the film's first thirty minutes to underline what an impatient introvert Mary is that it's hard for her to untangle some of that to find the actual desire for human connection (a problem that never gets resolved all the way to a final shot that I don't think plays the way the movie intends, though in all honesty, the intent is a bit hard to suss out). So between them, the leads don't do much of anything to push us to see their relationship as a transcending passion, and the filmmakers are too ham-fisted in creating a moody, glowering film to do anything to help them. It's a pity that Ammonite invests so much in being a story of a love story defying the social norms of the time, because it has literally everything it needs to be about the much more tangible defiance of Mary Anning, the brilliant scientist, and the skilled act of character creation by Winslet. But you can't review films that didn't get made, only ones that did, and the Ammonite that exists is pretty much just there: too many individual strengths for me to write if off, but too clumsy at its primary goal for me to pretend that it's all that edifying an experience.