Director: Francis Lee
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Claire Rushbrook, Alec Secareanu, Sarah White
Words – Denise Hobart
Ammonite imagines a passionate love affair between the self-taught pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning and her friend Charlotte Murchison. Anning’s early nineteenth century achievements were largely obscured, or credited to men, due largely to her sex and poor background. The film is a fictionalised, measured and absorbing exploration of female working class repression and its effect on recognition, confidence and freedom of expression.
We find Kate Winslet’s isolated Mary in a blustery Lyme Regis some years after her most celebrated find has been sold for living expenses and is now displayed in the British Museum. Mary has more in common in appearance with the cleaner at the museum who is barked orders to by an unseen man to make way for her find, than that which a scientist of her accomplishments could expect. Mary’s hand-written label on her fossil find is unceremoniously discarded, to be replaced by that of the wealthy man presenting it, but the filth of the work undertaken to discover and house these prizes credited to men are etched in the women’s fingernails and their worn, dirty clothing.
Mary is living with her gruff, emotionally distant but ever watchful mother and it is a workhorse existence: cold winter nights, early rising to catch the tide and risk injury in landslides in the hunt for fossils through grime, wind and rain, then a return home to domestic and fossil shopkeeping chores. Rare free moments are dedicated to technical drawing, working by candlelight long into the night.
Into this routine barges the wealthy, entitled geologist Roderick Murchison, keen to learn from Mary and bringing in tow his silent and fragile younger wife, Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte. Murchison’s wishes are indulged not out of a desire to share her knowledge – Mary has long since been disillusioned at her exclusion and treatment at the hands of what she terms as the men’s club in London – but due to the much-needed crumb of his wealth that Roderick offers her. Murchison further takes advantage of his financial position when, unwilling to deal personally with his wife’s grief at an unspoken but hinted at loss dismissed by him as melancholia, he leaves her in Lyme Regis to continue overseas alone. Anticipating picking up his fully restored wife once a bit of sea air via daily walks observing Mary has knocked the cheerfulness stuffing back into her, Murchison instead leaves Charlotte to fall seriously ill, requiring the constant care and attention of Mary.
Director Francis Lee creates an amazing sense of place and personal belonging throughout the film. Lyme Regis and the Dorset coastline make for a stunning location but it would be easy to be overwhelmed by its film history, the ghosts of The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Persuasion jostling for space on the Cobb. Instead, there is a sense with Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography that you are viewing the place with fresh eyes and that Winslet’s Mary is part of the fabric of her surroundings, ingrained as it is in her hands, her clothes and daily life. Images and sounds of spring see in Charlotte’s recovery and an awakening of sorts begins as the women gradually find solace, an uneasy understanding and passion with each other. The sound design creates a believably authentic sense of atmosphere, a lack of intrusive music giving way instead to a constant scratching at fossils, waves on the shoreline, the crunch of boots on the pebble beach and comfortable silences.
The central performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are the heart of the film and they work assuredly together to steadily create a truthful connection of their characters. Gemma Jones as Molly, a very different type of mother to Winslet than her Mrs Dashwood in 1995’s Sense and Sensibility, is wonderful at the centre of some of the most moving scenes as we come to understand more about this seemingly cold matriarch.
The film’s narrative slightly loses its balance towards the end and it somewhat misrepresents the real Charlotte Murchison in terms of age and accomplishment (she had a good decade on Anning and is credited with being instrumental in encouraging her husband’s interest in geology rather than he in hers).
Ammonite is a thoroughly absorbing watch, especially for its central and supporting performances and the evocative sense of place and time. Ultimately, it is not Mary’s sexuality or even her sex that is the chief hinderance to her happiness and progress but her social class. It is the gulf between the two women caused by this difference that becomes the biggest challenge to their understanding of each other.