Film, 2020, 4.5
Mary Anning was a woman for whom critical recognition came too late to be meaningful in her life. She was poor, passionate, committed, and by all historical reports, compassionate and kind. She lived her life isolated in her small house in coastal England in Lyme Regis. She lived battered by the elements, and died relatively young of breast cancer at 47, only to have the male-driven scientific community finally acknowledge her enormous contributions long after she passed.
I can see why Francis Lee considered her life rich dramatic fodder. Ammonite is a film that not only explores female intimacy, but looks long and hard at the sacrifices women are prepared to make to achieve their life’s work – characteristics that history would tell us belonged only to men.
Kate Winslet is the most gifted, important actress of her (and my) generation, and I’m willing to fight for that statement. Here she’s steely, stubborn, and prideful but utterly free from artifice. Saoirse Ronan has a luminosity to her that just reveals itself in endless layers. To have these actresses so immersed and committed here isn’t just important to the film, it is the film. Without their sublime talent for communicating thoughts and feelings without words, we would have a windy, somewhat dour and atmospheric film about a couple of women in corsets clambering around on rocks who had a fling.
Ammonite is beautifully shot, with a sparse script. There isn’t much to the story itself – Mary Anning is in the waning years of her career as an under-appreciated but noteworthy scientist. She lives off the pittance tourists will pay for meaningless fossils, while she cares for her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). Charlotte arrives with her fossil-hunting husband, depressed and haunted after what we assume is the most recent of many miscarriages. He leaves to pursue adventures, offering Mary money she can’t possibly turn down to take care of his wife while he is away.
Charlotte becomes seriously ill, and while Mary is forced to nurse her she begins to emerge from her isolation, finding something in the guileless Charlotte that makes her hope for more from her existence than simply rocks, mud, fossils, and loneliness.
Despite both Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison being historical figures, and there’s evidence to suggest they were friends, Ammonite is a work of pure fiction. Yes, Anning was an important geologist and paleontologist. Yes, Murchison was the beautiful wife of a rich man interested in fossils. That’s pretty much it. There’s no biographical evidence to suggest Anning was gay or straight. All we know for sure is that she was brilliant, and alone.
Francis Lee has chosen to make Mary a lesbian – this affair isn’t entirely a by-chance coming together of forbidden passions. Mary has been in at least one other relationship, with her neighbour Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), who helps Mary to see how vital Charlotte has become to her by recounting the real reasons why their own romance unhappily failed.
Mary notices the beauty and fragility of Charlotte from the first moment, though at first despises those things before she comes to love them. Charlotte is brave but embattled, and often childlike in her helplessness. She becomes caught up in her passions and life-changing revelations, unable to even really see Mary for who she truly is until literally the last second of the film.
Ammonite would be almost flawless if it weren’t for some pacing issues in the first half. As wonderful as Ronan is, it’s Winslet’s film, and she needs the time early on to fully reveal Mary to us. However, Lee does indulge himself, wanting to impress the truly bleak drudgery and poverty of her existence - in the house, on the shore, scraping fossils in the shop, in the Annings’ sparse rituals of cleaning old keepsakes and making their meagre meals. In order to fully appreciate the light Charlotte brings, we have to truly immerse in Mary’s dark. It’s slow, but ultimately rewarding.
Ammonite truly captured me in a small moment almost halfway through. Mary struggles home after a night of social anxiety and jealousy where she cannot bring herself to mingle with the elite of her own small town, though Charlotte seems born for it. Charlotte says “you were the most fascinating person there tonight, and the most beautiful”. Ammonite might not be explosive, or filled with themes that explore the meaning of life, but it was fascinating, beautiful, rich, and honest. Like Mary Anning herself, you’ll be quite engrossed spending a couple of hours in her company.
Last Note: Films that explore the experience of being an overlooked, creative woman are not that uncommon. However, films that explore that experience while also illuminating the love between women are rare enough that having two come on the heels of each other (Ammonite and Portrait of Lady on Fire) seems to have sent the film world into a tizz. Other than what I have just mentioned, the films have little in common, and comparisons between them are redundant, though every single review you read tends to not be able to mention one without the other. Ignore it, see both. They’re both wonderful in their own unique ways.