Writer-director Francis Lee’s follow up to his stunning 2017 debut feature God’s Own Country, immerses us in the imagined day-to-day life of an often overlooked historical figure, English fossil collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning, in the absorbing, exquisitely crafted Ammonite. Mary (Kate Winslet) shares a humble but well-kept home with her ailing widowed mother Molly (Gemma Jones) in the rugged Dorset coastal town of Lyme Regis in the 1840s. One gets the sense that their hand-to-mouth existence has been the same for many years, with Mary searching the nearby beach for fossils, however harsh the weather might be, to sell to tourists in their small shop, while Molly stays at home to prepare their meals and polish the figurines that represent her eight deceased children.
This routine and their social isolation is interrupted by the arrival of the rather stiff upper class Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) who lets himself into Mary’s store and worksop one day. He initially neglects to introduce his beautiful young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) until Mary berates the woman for handling one of her finds. Clearly in need of the money, and with Molly listening in, Mary is unable to refuse Roderick’s request to spend some time closely observing her at work. Charlotte, who has recently lost a child, receives no empathy or affection from her husband who describes her to Mary as suffering from “mild melancholia” and as a “shadow” of her former “funny, bright” self. In the couple’s hotel bedroom there’s not even so much as an embrace or goodnight kiss, with Roderick resisting her movement towards him, believing that physical intimacy between them is only necessary for procreation. Embarking on an archeological tour of the continent, he decides that rather than putting a dampener on his trip, Charlotte should be left behind in Lyme Regis while he goes on alone. Again, Mary has little option but to reluctantly agree when Roderick asks her to spend time with the young grieving woman while he’s away in return for payment.
Conveyed with unsteady handheld photography, there’s further disruption to Mary’s life as Charlotte is carried into her home having fallen ill following what was intended to be a restorative dip in the bitterly cold sea, but what the town’s doctor, Lieberson (God’s Own Country’s Alec Secareanu), refers to as “water torture”. Dr. Lieberson guilt trips Mary into giving up her own bed and attending to Charlotte saying, “It is a woman’s position to care for a fellow sister”. The handsome bearded Secareanu brings a tenderness and charm to the role that make him the kind of doctor anyone would enjoy a house call from. Attentive with his visits, it’s clear that he has an eye for Mary, but when he invites her on a date to a musical recital at his home, she insists that she be accompanied by Charlotte.
Although dutiful towards her mother, and sensitive about her great loss of a husband and so many children, Mary appears to have a closer bond with rocks and fossils than she does for the people around her. When she begins to look after Charlotte though something in Mary softens. As her rather hostile, uptight and frosty exterior starts to thaw, so does the film’s somber colour palette warm; by candlelight Mary’s face brightens as she watches over the sleeping Charlotte. Half an hour or so in, the film then gets its first real burst of colour in the following sequence, with some vibrant flowers in the garden of Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw) whom Mary visits to get some medicinal balm for Charlotte. Although unspoken and not made explicit in their brief exchange, like so much in the film, it is immediately clear that there’s a history between the women and it seems likely that Mary, apparently not the only gay in the village, has had a relationship with the older and more comfortably off Elizabeth. When Molly watches Charlotte and Mary walk to the beach together we sense she’s seen her grow close to women before and knows what’s likely to happen between them. Lee allows this to be expressed with a brief look by Jones, an example of the way in which without spelling everything out he credits his attentive audience with emotional and intellectual intelligence, contributing to a film that we invest in and therefore resonates more deeply.
Down on the beach, cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine generally keeps his shots tight on the lead actors. This isn’t a sweeping period epic, it’s an intimate character study and we see the landscape as the characters themselves experience it; cold, harsh, a little menacing even, and ever-present in their lives. In fact the sound of the sea barely leaves the film’s richly detailed soundscape by Johnnie Burn. Instead of gorgeous camera shots of the Dorset coast and lavish costumes, there is more likely to be shots of feet on the ground or hands at work, and the kind of earthy character detail that sees Mary squat on the beach to pee, then wipe her hands on her skirt before breaking a Cornish pasty in half and offering to share her lunch with Charlotte. It’s a brief sequence that neatly sums up the no-nonsense Mary, a woman dedicated to her work who is plain-speaking, occasionally potty mouthed—dropping the odd F-bomb now and then—and unsentimental.
Winslet imbues her portrayal of Mary with life experience offering delicate, detailed work that results in a powerhouse performance of restraint and subtlety. A mature, quiet tour-de-force. It’s met by an equally unshowy but poignant performance by Ronan as Charlotte who has disappeared into the roles of subservient wife and grieving mother, but slowly begins to rediscover who she is at her core through her relationship with the older Mary. Each actor allows their fellow performer’s work room to breathe, while Lee, an experienced actor himself, demonstrates faith in his fine cast to convey so much with their physicality, expressive eyes and faces rather than words as the connection between the women builds. Lee’s admirably spare dialogue paired with his restrained use of Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelman’s score help enhance the naturalism of the film. The first real burst of music only comes after Charlotte’s recovery as she plays Mary’s piano, which clearly has not been touched for many years. That wasn’t meant to sound like a euphemism, though of course part of the point that Lee is making with the scene is that Charlotte brings some long absent sweet music to Mary’s home literally and figuratively.
A sense of loss and mourning hang over the film, but Ammonite’s rather gloomy tone begins to brighten with some humour as the women do finally start talking, with Mary saying she’s not keen on all of Charlotte’s questions: “I might have preferred it when you were unconscious” she tells her. Mary also tells a great dirty limerick that breaks the tension and had me roaring with laughter. She had been so closed to her emotions that just the smallest gesture of physical connection, like Charlotte briefly putting her hand on her shoulder, feels momentous, let alone when the women hold hands for for the first time and then eventually make love. The sex scenes don’t feel choreographed or beautifully composed for the camera, but with long takes they have a messy slightly awkward rawness to them. Starved of bright sunlight for much of the film, when we do get some sun directly hitting the camera lens it lifts our spirits as the lovers share a kiss in the English Channel.
Although living largely isolated from the world, Mary isn’t immune to the social constraints of the time, but refreshingly there isn’t any angst about her sexuality. Perhaps the lovers not being in turmoil about their forbidden passion or being fearful of getting discovered means that Ammonite doesn’t necessarily feel as queer a movie as say Carol or Portrait of a Lady on Fire, neither is it as emotionally potent. Their lesbianism isn’t significant to the plot or the characters themselves. In writing the film Lee wanted to give Mary a relationship, and as there wasn’t any evidence for her having had a male or female partner he decided to make it a same sex romance. The emphasis therefore is on the impact that this intimate and deep human connection has on Mary, rather than that it happens to be a same sex coupling.
Reminiscent at times in both its tone and naturalism to the work of the great Terence Davies, Ammonite places Lee as a worthy successor to his legacy and that of other British filmmakers who’ve largely focused on a working class milieu like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. Perhaps inspired by Leigh’s lengthy rehearsal process, Lee’s lead actors spent an unusually extensive period preparing for their roles, with Winslet learning how to search for and handle fossils, while Ronan learned needlework and the piano. That time spent with the characters shows in their lived-in performances, they fully inhabit these women.
Ammonite opens with a shot of a woman mopping the floor of the British Museum as she’s rudely shoved out of the way by two men, much like the male dominated scientific community sidelined Mary Anning’s substantial achievements in the field of palaeontology. Historical neglect that Ammonite will hopefully contribute to belatedly rectifying.
By James Kleinmann
Ammonite is in select US theaters Friday November 13th and available premium on demand Friday December 4th.