Before sitting down to watch “Ammonite,” the new film from writer/director Francis Lee, it might be helpful to know a little bit about the history of paleontology – specifically, about a woman named Mary Anning.
Anning grew up in a poor family in Lyme Regis, a town on the English Channel, where she helped with the family business of selling fossils from the region’s geologically rich beaches and cliffsides to the many tourists attracted by its seaside resorts. At the age of 12, she found what would eventually become the first correctly identified full skeleton of a marine dinosaur known as an ichthyosaur; it was a breakthrough discovery that played a major role in reshaping the way scientists (and the rest of the world) understood prehistoric life on earth, and she would not only go on to make several more important finds, but to contribute significantly to the scientific study of the subject.
Unfortunately for Mary, she also lived in the 19th century. That meant that, as a woman, though she was widely known and respected for her discoveries, she was not eligible for membership in the Geographical Society of London or any of the other respected bodies of the scientific community; as a result, credit for her findings was often co-opted by the men who consulted her and bought her specimens, and she continued to toil away in near-anonymity, selling fossils and trinkets out of her seaside shop, for much of her life.
Today, Anning gets something much closer to the recognition she deserved in the scientific record. To the world at large, however, her name remains mostly unknown; but, thanks to Lee (whose 2017 debut feature “God’s Own Country” was acclaimed by critics as one of the best queer films in recent memory), that is about to change – though perhaps not solely for the reason she might have preferred.
In “Ammonite,” we are introduced to Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) years after that sensational childhood find, living out her days in near-debilitating poverty with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones), still harvesting fossils from the beach. Hard and sullen, she barely bothers to conceal her misanthropy from the tourists who come into her shop, and maintains a near-reclusive distance from residents of the town. The drudgery of her existence begins to change, however, when a “gentleman scientist” offers to pay her handsomely to act as a companion for his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who suffers from “melancholia,” while he is away on an expedition. Unable to refuse the financial boost, she grudgingly accepts, and though their relationship gets off to a difficult start, it soon becomes clear that these two sidelined women are awakening to something between them that has always been denied in a world where their parameters are defined solely by men.
It should be no spoiler to clarify that this premise is the set-up for a lesbian romance, played out against a picturesque period backdrop and full of the kind of forbidden, subversive eroticism that seems to come so naturally from the intricate process of unfastening old-fashioned garments. Lee’s movie derives much from all these environmental factors and more as it tells a deceptively simple story about two seemingly complex women who really are only looking for perhaps the most basic need of all; but unlike many such historical tales of furtive and forbidden love, it does not rely solely on the trappings and tropes of romantic fiction, and rather uses them only as a canvas for a studied, near-hypnotic exploration of human behavior that, while it may not entirely eschew sentiment, tempers and redefines it in a way that keeps it from becoming inauthentic.
To accomplish this, Lee doubles down on the strengths that elevated “God’s Own Country” above the majority of other rural queer love stories on film. Most obvious, perhaps, is the keen sense of environment mentioned above, in which the setting takes on a role in the story itself, and the characters’ interaction with their environment and circumstances defines much of how they relate to each other throughout. The director’s meticulous approach to capturing the world of an early 18th-century oceanside village makes a viewer feel and smell the crisp sea air firsthand.
Lee’s greatest gift, however, is both more subtle and more profound, and it’s one that infuses his work both as writer and director of his work so far. Having carefully set up the circumstances of his narrative within a viscerally realistic place and time, he lets it all unfold with an almost ascetic sparseness of dialogue. What is spoken serves to illuminate little more than the necessary details that move the ostensible plot; but what is unspoken is a rich, layered, and nuanced observation of human experience that is both specific and, to most of us, alien, yet also universal and recognizable to any viewer who reads the volumes contained between the lines.
It’s that last part that might prove challenging to some viewers; “Ammonite” is the kind of movie that can easily feel slow-moving to audiences who are partial to storytelling that involves more direct action and fewer inscrutable gazes. For those who are up for it, however, the subtext that conveys the real narrative of Lee’s film – the one that charts a shared inner journey, not the external factors that surround it – is every bit as thrilling as a non-stop action blockbuster.
While the movie’s filmmaker must get full kudos for his remarkable talent in making that happen, it would be hard for him to pull it off without the help of his leading players. Winslet and Ronan are both among modern cinema’s most accomplished and versatile performers, and it’s clear they each relish the chance to take a deep dive into their skill set for these complex roles. Winslet’s dowdy, frumpish, and middle-aged Mary blossoms before our eyes to reveal the beauty that has been right in front of us all along, while Ronan’s morose, hollow Charlotte transitions into a vibrant, confident woman by her side. These inner evolutions are enacted in tandem, like a dance between two prima ballerinas, complementing and counterpointing each other in a way that seems as effortless as breathing, but is in fact the product of a lifetime of difficult work and study – with a prodigious amount of talent thrown in, of course.
It should be noted that “Ammonite” is not a biopic, nor even a true story in the sense that most of us would think; there really was a Charlotte, who was the real-life Anning’s lifelong friend and correspondent after staying with her in Lyme Regis for a few months, but beyond that, much of what Lee shows us on film is pure speculative fiction. This, of course, makes it somehow feel all the truer.
“Ammonite” is a movie which, like the fossils excavated by its characters, requires fastidious effort in order to extract its treasures. That might make it unappealing for many, but for those who have passion for the work, the payoff is well worth the labor.