Writer and Director: Francis Lee
It may seem a strange career move for director Francis Lee to go from the earthy and visceral God’s Own Country, about the love of two male farmers, to the fossils and frocks of Ammonite. But Lee puts his trademark stamp on this story of palaeontologist Mary Anning, and her relationship with the young and wealthy Charlotte Murchison. It’s just as raw and grim as his debut, but it lacks the romance that gave God’s Own Country a slither of brightness.
Ammonite begins when the fossil-hunting craze has ended, and Mary Anning ekes out a living from the few tourists that visit her shop in Lyme Regis (stubbornly just called Lyme in this film). She’s gruff, unapproachable, rude to everyone she meets, including her mother who she lives with. Kate Winslet is almost unrecognisable and gives a performance as strong as in The Reader of 2008, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress.
It seems odd that she is asked by a gentleman scientist to look after his wife while he goes abroad. Mary is reluctant, but the promise of money sways her. Charlotte is just as unlikeable to begin with, equally as discourteous as her unwilling companion. Why anyone would want to spend any time with either of these women is unclear.
But both have reasons for their sullenness. Charlotte’s husband announces that she has ‘mild melancholia’ and it seems that she has lost a baby, probably in stillbirth, an event mirrored in the dead chick Mary’s mother finds in her hard boiled egg. The reasons for Mary’s ill manners are less clear, but it seems that she has been romantically rebuffed before, by a miscast Fiona Shaw. Fortunately, both women’s temperaments improve after Charlotte becomes seriously ill.
As Charlotte recovers under Mary’s diligent but distant care, winter moves into spring and a sexual relationship develops between them. But still, it must be more common to come across the bones of a brontosaurus than get a smile out of Mary Anning. If this perhaps sounds romantic, don’t worry there is plenty of mud on the beach, and meanwhile back in the shop Mary’s mother is coughing up blood into a handkerchief.
As Charlotte, Saoirise Ronan, looking younger than her 26 years is dependably good, revealing a woman’s sexual awakening. Ronan seems right at home in this kind of period drama, especially when the action moves to London in the film’s third act. On the other hand Winslet has come a long way from Sense and Sensibility, using her dress to dry her hands after urinating on the beach or getting soil under her nails while pulling an ichthyosaurus out of the cliff. Next to Ronan, she seems old, solid, corporeal.
The two women say little to nothing to each other, and instead Lee provides the roaring waves and the clatter of breakfast things. When the soundtrack does arrive it’s discreet and muted, but it’s worth staying to watch the end credits to hear the whole of Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann’s piano score. It perhaps delivers the romance that the film doesn’t.
Of course, Ammonite is not based on fact. There is no evidence that Anning harboured same-sex desire, and this film won’t excite geologists eager to discover more about the Jurassic Coast. As a film about two women, trapped in early 19th century gender roles, Ammonite works, but those expecting a love story will be disappointed.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 7 to 18 October