English director Francis Lee swaps the green dales of Yorkshire for the grey coastline of Lyme Regis in his sophomore outing, Ammonite. Lee shines a light on acclaimed self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning’s remarkable accomplishments in this 1840s period costume drama.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) struggles to make ends meet running a gift shop selling trinkets and fossils to tourists with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones). When aspiring geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives at her shop, offering to pay her to look after his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), she can’t afford to turn him down. Reluctantly taking the unwanted guest with her on fossil hunts, the two slowly connect over uncovering the fascinating spiral-shaped ammonites. Despite their differing backgrounds and ages, their healing friendship sparks a deeply passionate affair, reinvigorating Mary to let someone into her life once again.
Beneath the rough landscape and harsh weather of the Jurassic Coast, there’s something quietly tender and beautiful about this film. Like Mary Anning’s talent with unearthing exquisite fossils from seemingly innocuous rocks, the youthful Charlotte chisels away at the paleontologist’s hard exterior, revealing a tender and passionate self in Lee’s intimate character study.
Both Mary and Charlotte find themselves in less than ideal circumstances; Mary is struggling to care for her mother and make ends meet, while Charlotte is battling depression following a miscarriage. What starts as reluctant companionship gradually blossoms into an unspoken connection, as the two bond over a shared sense of loneliness. This is definitely Winslet’s best performance for some time; she wonderfully portrays a morose Anning who’s tough exterior gradually fades away to reveal a caring lover. Born into a life of poverty, the palaeontologist had to overcome a number of hardships, often fighting for any sort of recognition. Ronan’s passionate Charlotte ignites a renewed yearning in Mary, and despite their opposing backgrounds, a consuming affair begins.
The director also highlights the archaic attitudes shown towards women and their expected roles in society, particularly those in male dominated industries. Anning was a pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector, but due to her gender, she often wasn’t credited in scientific papers and even the Geological Society of London refused to admit her. It’s poignant watching this hugely talented scientist reduced to hunting for fossils on the beach to sell to tourists and collectors, in order to help support her ailing mother. Charlotte is also tossed aside when she fails to fulfil her wifely duties, clearly mourning the loss of her unborn child (much like Anning’s mother).
Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine creates a hugely atmospheric backdrop to the tender tale, highlighting the cold and wet Southern English coastline. The harsh greys and blues slowly make way for more warming tones, usually highlighted by candlelight, as Mary and Charlotte’s relationship deepens. There’s a gritty and earthy nature to Anning’s daily excavations, with the paleontologist often struggling in the muddy banks to retrieve potential treasures. This hard labour is highlighted in the many close-ups of the character’s warn hands, often juxtaposed with shots of Charlotte’s dainty, youthful hands when playing the piano. The costume design from Michael O’Conner is also exquisite, once again reinforcing the differences between the two women. Charlotte’s many ornate dresses showcase her wealthy status, while Mary’s practical but worn costume signify her hardship.
Whilst the film has drawn comparisons to writer-director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, there’s a defining endurance to Ammonite which sets it apart from the French tale. Featuring a career best performance from Winslet, who shares a brilliant chemistry with Ronan, there’s an endearing nature to Mary’s portrayal. While the ending doesn’t quite land, the film is a hugely passionate and beautifully crafted spotlight on the underrepresented scientist.