“Lingering and irrevocably alluring, Ammonite is a spectacular excavation of Mary Anning’s forgotten life”
Francis Lee has a challenge to follow-up God’s Own Country, his masterfully honed debut, a stunning rumination of isolation and sexuality in the story of a young gay man’s self-acceptance. With Ammonite, Lee swaps the rural fields of Yorkshire for southern coastlines in a quietly affecting romance under the grey skies of Lyme Regis. With little knowledge of the private life of the real Mary Anning, Ammonite fills in the gaps with queer pining and fossil hunting.
Kate Winslet plays the part of Mary Anning, a palaeontologist whose discoveries include the first Ichthyosaurus skeleton, or as she named it: Fish Lizard. On the shore of Lyme Regis, Mary patrols the coastline, muddy clay squelches underfoot and fingerless gloves scramble through dirt as she extracts and examines rocks. The life of a palaeontologist is lonesome; days stretch as far as beaches and work ends only once the sun has set behind the ocean. But Mary’s self-inflicted isolation is disrupted with the arrival of Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan).
Charlotte appears with her husband, Roderick (James McArdle), from the smog of London hoping that the sea-air will clear her lungs and soothe her mind. Roderick is entranced by Mary’s work and is compelled to learn from her to “see what she sees.” Little does he know, it is impossible for him to share Mary’s female gaze of longing. Leaving Charlotte in the company of Mary, for which the latter is paid handsomely, Roderick departs. Charlotte is left a shell of her former self, suffering from a “melancholia” having lost her baby. Grief-stricken, she resides to spend her days in bed. On the rare occasion she is forced to venture out, she is draped in all-black fabric.
It is on one of their coastal stolls beside the raging ocean where Mary makes a peace offering. The reconciliation with Charlotte comes in the form of half a pasty, and there is literally nothing more welcoming than a local offering to share a pasty with you. Their tactile relationship morphs into a masterfully paced, slow-burn romance where shoulders knock as they brush away dirt and eyes linger as they examine each other’s hands, the magnetic force between them gradually strengthening.
Mary’s legacy sits in a glass cabinet, voiceless and to be stared at, the fate of the nineteenth-century pioneering woman.
Fossil hunting has conflating interests for each woman: while it keeps Charlotte’s mind busy, for Mary this is her place in the world. Lee has unearthed Mary’s life amid the masculinity of her profession. Indebted to her work, Lee’s Mary buries feelings deep and would rather dig for fossils than excavate her own desires. Yet, it becomes clear that what Mary seeks cannot be found inside a rock, no fossil can satisfy her. While the portraits of her fellow confrere are oil paintings adorning the walls of the nation’s history, Mary Anning is a hand-written name on an identification card. Mary’s legacy sits in a glass cabinet, voiceless and to be stared at, the fate of the nineteenth-century pioneering woman. Her place in the world of palaeontology is erased. Mary finds belonging, instead, in the arms of Charlotte. Embodying the brittle outside of rock, with gentle coaxing from Charlotte’s soft approach, Mary reveals a gentle softness at her interior and comes apart under the glow of candlelight. Small but touching moments of tenderness are subtle against the stern Britishness of Ammonite.
With her long dresses and fancy hairdos, Charlotte is a delicate upper-class other-worldly creature who exists in a different social sphere, while Mary’s position in working-class poverty is an absolute opposite. Ammonite is both a love story and a gendered examination of two women divided by class and social status. Mary’s hands are exhausted from the aching work of knocking rocks and polishing trinkets. Although tired, she bathes Charlotte with care, gently rubbing salve into her chest and taking her hand to keep her upright. Their relationship blossoms from this caring and nurturing connection, a bond that Mary must balance with the emotional weight of her labour that both drags and drives her. Their infatuation brings them together but the division of class reprimands their future.
Winslet is devastatingly brilliant as Mary, the sparing use of her Dorset dialogue and restrained performance brews from intense nuances that are contrasted against the softness that Ronan provides. Although some symbolic imagery is heavy-handed, this narrative of two lesbians finding each other is realised with indisputable intimacy. One moment mirrors an earlier scene between Charlotte and Roderick in bed, but unlike him, Mary does not reel away from Charlotte’s touch as she shuffles closer in the shared single bed. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography must also be praised, with tight shots closing in on bodies, chilly sea wind flowing through garments and tangibly warming flames, it feels as though every rock on the wide beach is accounted for. The murky greyness of the British coastline outside counters the warmth and safety from inside this seaside cottage. When dreary England is shut out, their enchanting amorous entanglement flourishes.
Lesbian pining is interrupted by the echoing cough of Mary’s mother. Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) reignites her role as the ‘mother of the gay character’, assuming her role as Molly, a mother who clings to memories as if they are a lifeline. Although not overly prevalent, these characters are submerged in the quaint stone-lined streets of Lyme Regis. This is especially noticeable with Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), an unspoken ex of Mary. Elizabeth’s caring voice is a soothing wave of sweetness that brings tears to Mary’s eyes. The physicality of emotion is the breaking of a dam with the sudden and gushing outward expression of feeling. Mary, a stoic woman, is moved by the promise of another’s love: Elizabeth who reaches out and sees her for who she is.
In this nineteenth-century period piece, Lee studies the silent life of a working-class lesbian. Finding authenticity in the experience of her impassioned work, the film revives and heralds ubiquitous moments of lesbian yearning. Lingering and irrevocably alluring, Ammonite is a spectacular excavation of Mary Anning’s forgotten life that has been brought to the surface.
Dir: Francis Lee
Prod: Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan
Release Date: October 16, 2020
Header Image courtesy of IMDb