Francis Lee’s new film “Ammonite” is a somber fictional romance drama between two different real-life figures in the 19th Victorian era. While it is a bit too dry, slow, and detached at times, the movie subtly and sensitively depicts the emotional undercurrents churning around its two heroines, and it is often poignant to see how their mostly suppressed romantic feelings are further fueled by that drab and repressive environment surrounding them.
If you have ever been interested in paleontology, you have probably heard about Mary Anning, a self-taught paleontologist who discovered many different important fossils for herself on the Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis during the early 19th century. Although many of her discoveries including the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton led to significant changes and advances in her scientific field during that time, Anning never received any proper recognition throughout her life just because she was a woman, and she also could not be a member of Geological Society of London while many male scientists usually took credits for her considerable contributions as reflected by the opening scene of the film set in a big museum in London.
Anning’s last years in the 1840s were particularly hard and difficult due to her constantly poor economic status, and we see another dreary day of hers on the coastline of Lyme Regis during that period. Although it is quite cold, gloomy, and windy on the beach, Anning (Kate Winslet) must find any kind of fossil good enough to sell at a small shop run by her and her ailing mother Molly (Gemma Jones), and then she comes to notice something in a muddy cliff. The movie patiently observes her following hard efforts, and we can sense how willing she is to take considerable risk for earning a bit more, though the outcome of her efforts is not as satisfying as she hoped in the end.
On one day, one unexpected customer comes into Anning’s shop. That person in question is a young geologist named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), and he is quite eager to not only buy some fossils from Anning but also observe how she works on the beach. Although she is not so interested in taking Murchison to her usual workplace, Anning eventually agrees to do that because he is willing to pay for that, and we later get a little amusing moment which clearly shows us that Anning is much more knowledgeable than her latest customer in case of locating and identifying fossils.
Murchison also brings his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) to Lyme Regis, and he wants her to join his outdoor activities, but Charlotte is not particularly willing to do that because of her fragile physical condition at present. When it subsequently turns out that Charlotte is not healthy enough to accompany him during his upcoming oversea trip, Murchison suggests that she should stay in Lyme Regis, and then he asks Anning to take care of his wife during his absence.
While understandably reluctant to take care of Charlotte, Anning accepts Murchison’s request mainly because he promises to pay more money to her for that. It looks like Charlotte needs some fresh sea air, but the brutal and gloomy climate of the coastline of Lyme Regis does not fit with her that well, and she also dislikes spending time on the beach along with Anning, who mostly concentrates on finding new fossils without saying much to Charlotte.
However, it does not take that much time for Anning and Charlotte to develop a certain mutual feeling between them. When Charlotte becomes quite ill after her disastrous attempt on sea bath, Anning nurses her with considerable care and attention, and Charlotte appreciate that a lot while becoming more affectionate to her than before. When they are alone together in Anning’s workroom at one point, something eventually sparks between them, and they instantly find themselves swept into a passion they have probably never experienced before.
I must point out that there is no evidence on what really happened between Anning and Charlotte in real life, but Lee’s screenplay did a thoughtful job of handling its story and characters while exercising some artistic liberty and imagination as required, and he also makes a small good point on female issues during the Victorian era. Having been often suppressed by their conservative society which usually disregards and discriminates women, Anning and Charlotte cannot help but feel liberated as passionately embracing each other, and Charlotte even comes to consider having her lover near her in London later in the story.
Although the movie unfortunately stumbles during its last act, it is at least held together by its two dependable lead actresses. While Kate Winslet is terrific as a woman who is fiercely passionate as well as independent behind her hardened façade, Saoirse Ronan ably complements her co-star with an equally sensitive performance, and the other main cast members in the film including James McArdle, Gemma Jones, Alec Secăreanu, and Fiona Shaw are also well-cast in their respective supporting roles.
Compared to the raw emotional power of Lee’s previous film “God’s Own Country” (2017), which can be regarded as a British variation of “Brokeback Mountain” (2005), “Ammonite” is more reserved and restrained, but it is mostly engaging mainly thanks to Winslet and Ronan. While it is not as passionate and compelling as Todd Haynes’ “Carol” (2015) or Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), the movie distinguishes itself with enough good elements, so I recommend it to you despite some reservation.