Less lush than the Yorkshire landscapes of Francis Lee’s directorial debut God’s Own Country, but just as weather-battered, Ammonite’s setting of Lyme Regis is dull grey and at the mercy of tearing waves that rip mercilessly into its jagged cliff faces. Here, the fossil-collector and palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives in a bleakly utilitarian home, with its grubby windows and dirty rags, the only decorative ornaments have ominous significance – she and her mother meticulously scrub and bathe these eight figurines every day. Though there’s a piano tucked away in the corner, it stays firmly zipped up in a fabric case; the sole noise here comes from the constantly howling winds, and Anning’s mother’s hacking cough. After rising from her hard, creaking bed each day, she trudges up and down a salt-spattered beach glumly searching for treasure. It’s dirty, earthy work clambering over the destruction of recent landslides, and gouging fossils out of the muddy cliff face with her bare hands.
These harsh surroundings hold up a mirror to Mary Anning: an overlooked scientist forced to supplement her work by selling driftwood, shell-covered treasure chests and other tourist tat in her near-empty shop. Like the prehistoric imprints she hunts for, her feelings are buried under tough rock; her front is steely and sweary. Understandable, perhaps: being a woman, Anning was excluded from belonging to the Geological Society of London, and was not always credited correctly for her most significant discoveries. On top of this, she’s continually badgered by a procession of well-dressed gentlemen from these same London establishments, waving banknotes and looking to benefit from her vast expertise. And when the banknote-wafting geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) swans into Anning’s Fossils & Curios uninvited, accompanied by his meek and unsmiling wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) Anning is at the end of her tether. After reluctantly taking Murchison to the beach to hunt for fossilised faeces, she is then lumbered with taking care of his “mildly melancholic” wife – in exchange for even more money. “Looks to be fuck all wrong with you to me,” she mutters in an unimpressed Dorset burr.
Over time, this coldness towards Charlotte Murchison thaws – with this gradual warming, Francis Lee’s film bursts into vivid colour, and Anning’s surroundings morph from harsh to inviting. As Anning’s tempers dissolve, and infatuation takes over, the sea flattens into calming stillness; the sky bursts blue, and the unforgiving coast becomes studded with wildflowers. Though Ronan’s performance is compelling, it’s Kate Winslet who shines brightest of all. As Anning’s sensitivities gradually surface, the world she inhabits shifts permanently – Lee seems to be showing us her once-lonely world opening up via the physical environment around her.
It’s perhaps a disservice that the subtly affecting Ammonite has been framed as the Hollywood sibling of Céline Sciamma’s stunning Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Though the two stories linger on tender touches loaded with meaning – and both belong to the highly niche canon of films about ‘being gay on the beach’ – such comparisons detract from Lee’s own portrait of isolation and longing. Ammonite’s ending is an uncertain one, with Anning left to choose between the work that she loves, and the high society that she once ached to infiltrate.
These loose ends are strangely satisfying, because ultimately, Ammonite represents a slightly different kind of love story, and an equally moving one: Mary Anning falling back in love with present life after being studiously fixated on relics of the past. It’s a testament to the way that the true connections we form in life are magical and transformative – and a gem that favours grit over grandeur.
- Director: Francis Lee
- Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones
- Release date: October 17 (London Film Festival)