An ammonite is a mollusc with a distinctive spiral shell that flourished in the Devonian period, (400 million years ago) and died out at the end of the Cretaceous, (roughly 66 million BCE). In biological terms that was a pretty good run. Homo sapiens will be lucky to survive for even a fraction of this time span.
In Francis Lee’s Ammonite, Kate Winslet plays the mollusc. Or, more precisely, she plays Mary Anning (1799-1847) a legendary fossil-hunter of the early 19th century. In the small Dorset town of Lyme Regis, facing the English Channel, Mary has spent her life scouring the shore and its muddy cliffs, looking for fossils exposed by the action of wind, rain and tides.
Among many celebrated finds Mary unearthed the bones of the ichthyosaur and Britain’s first pterosaur skeleton. Her patient excavations allowed scientists to piece together a picture of a prehistoric era in which England was a tropical land overrun by gigantic reptiles. If she never received much credit for her efforts and spent much of her life battling poverty it was because the scientific establishment of the day was ruled over by wealthy, Anglican gentlemen. Mary had the compound disadvantages of being female, working-class, and a dissenter.
Mary’s story is told in Deborah Cadbury’s book, Terrible Lizard (2000), which I just happened to be reading when this film came along (!) Cadbury examines the lives and personalities of the first dinosaur hunters and the obstacles they had to defeat. Chief among them were issues of class and religion.
Even though the book looks briefly at the marital problems of some of the major figures there is no suggestion anyone suffered because of his or her sexual preferences. Francis Lee has repaired this previously unnoticed omission by imagining a passionate lesbian relationship between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), the wife of gentleman fossil-hunter, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle).
Lee has form in this regard, as his debut feature, God’s Own Country (2017), told the story of two strapping Yorkshire farmers falling for each other. Perhaps for his next movie he might attempt the radical experiment of a male-female romance.
While Mary never married, and carried on a lively correspondence with Charlotte and other women, it’s a big leap to suggest she was a powderkeg of repressed sapphic longings just waiting for an opportunity to break free. Lee argues that it’s almost always assumed historical figures are heterosexual, so why can’t they be homosexual instead?
Rather than engage with this sophistical reasoning one might ask why we need to imagine a sex life for any historical figure on the basis of no evidence whatsoever? Directors and novelists can do what they like with a fictional character but when it’s a real person there’s a risk that audiences will forever think of Mary Anning in terms of this hypothetical sexual identity and forget her contribution to science.
Lee would like us to see Mary as a mollusc in its shell who needs someone to lure her into the sensual world. Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869), was no less real than Mary, but the historical woman is unrecognisable in Saoirse Ronan’s character. In this movie, Roderick, who is portrayed as a pompous ass, leaves his frail wife at Lyme Regis while he sets off to tour the continent. The taciturn Mary will be paid for the unwelcome task of looking after the invalid.
The real Charlotte was an energetic amateur geologist who travelled all over the continent with her husband, making sketches of rocks and fossils. Her health problems began when she contracted malaria, not the melancholia that afflicts her in this film. It was only later in life, after Mary was long gone, that Charlotte became too ill to accompany Roderick on his excursions. She had the distinction of having an ammonite named in her honour: Ammonites Murchisonae, so maybe she’s the mollusc.
Leaving history aside, what we have is a slow-burning romance set in the damp, grey atmosphere of a provincial seaside town. Winslet plays Mary as an unsmiling, uptight woman condemned to live with an aging mother (Gemma Jones), who fiddles constantly with a set of China ornaments that symbolise the eight children she bore, six of whom have died. Mary gives the impression she has given up on life, being barely civil to her customers. The role allows Winslet plenty of scope to unfurl her famous sullen glare.
Charlotte, her temporary responsibility, is a febrile, rich young woman with no aptitude for housework but a keen interest in fossils. Her loveless marriage with Roderick has left her yearning for affection, and she and Mary come together through a kind of slow, natural magnetism.
Viewers who are only interested in the physical bits will have to wait until well past the half-way mark, but when the moment arrives it does so with explosive force. Nevertheless, Ammonite remains a tasteful, carefully crafted film in which the two lead characters’ personalities are exposed with the same gradualness in which Mary releases a fossil from a piece of stone.
There is a lot of slightly obvious stuff showing how women had a hard time of it in the early 1800s, while the story of Mary and Charlotte’s impossible liaison proceeds along entirely predictable lines – although not without a few subtle touches in which Lee demonstrates his skill with minimalist dialogue, and what the French call mise-en-scène – which is basically everything that goes into a frame.
I’m almost constitutionally repelled by films that take huge liberties with history but Ammonite only tinkers with the lives of two individuals. Approach it as a moody, misty love story set on the shores of old England, distinguished by the quality of the lead performances, and you should still have a good night at the pictures.
Written & directed by Francis Lee
Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, Alec Secareanu, James McArdle
UK/Australia/USA, rated MA 15+, 117 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 16 January, 2021