Ammonite is an amenable tale of Mary Anning (played with a subtle, determined focus by Kate Winslet), the real-life palaeontologist, who worked and lived in Lyme Regis along the Jurassic Coast – as it’s now branded. In her lifetime, she uncovered marine fossils in an era when only men were considered equals in the scientific fields. While Mary did gain a little respect from her peers, she never really received the acknowledgement she deserved until after her death, which is dispiriting as she aided the way people think about prehistoric life on Earth.
In Francis Lee’s film, the depth of Anning’s work is a side-story to a suggested personal encounter with another real-life visitor, Charlotte Murchison, the wife of British geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). Charlotte, played exquisitely by Saoirse Ronan, is brought along by her husband’s visit to Mary as he has an interest in her work and wants to watch her work. That being said, it also appears he has a secondary plan because Charlotte is suffering with melancholy (for reasons of which we fail to learn) and so he agrees with Mary to leave her in Lyme Regis, so she can recover, and he can return to London.
While Charlotte is treated with disdain by her husband, at first Mary also follows suit. Finding her to be an unwanted distraction from her daily struggles, where finding fossils and selling them to tourists for much-needed money is her main reason for each day. Charlotte feigns interest in her work and begins to put herself more into the life of Mary, making herself noticed and just a shoulder touch, a brief human interaction, is laced with with genuine meaning for both parties.
In these early stages, Ronan’s Charlotte is weak-willed and downtrodden from the life she leads. While her life might contain the literal richness of London, it reflects Mary’s in the sense that neither of them have any genuine love that cares for them as individuals. Charlotte is vulnerable both physically and mentally, but Mary’s tough love seems to switch her on – rather than the opposite – and this fuels Charlotte into becoming more self-assured, more adamant to prove herself to the woman who has taken her in.
Of course, the entire focus of Ammonite is this evolving relationship that emerges between Mary and Charlotte. Whilst at first she’s there to ‘get better’, in the classic sense of a time where people believed the sea air could cure depression and the such, Mary’s commitment to looking after Charlotte – initially against her better judgement – doesn’t go unnoticed and gradually subtle looks, searing sensual tension and mutual appreciation will lead to a deeper, explicitly intimate relationship.
The grey skies of the Dorset coast, alongside the background of a stormy sea and a tough, pebble beach with eroding cliffs, lends to the tenacious yet passionate and obsessive love that swells between them. Director Francis Lee understands the nature of the surroundings, they interact with the story and is tempestuous as the world our lead characters exist in. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography captures these elements and alongside ridiculously impressive sound design, the sound of the crashing waves is enhanced, mirroring the lives we’re seeing before us.
So, while the desire is never understated in its feelings and emotions, Ammonite doesn’t always offer more beyond Charlotte and Mary’s passion for one another. The visuals are exemplary, as are tremendous performances from Winslet and Ronan, but we never really delve more into Anning’s work as a fossil hunter, despite ground-level excavation displayed in the form of digging through clay-ridden muddy cliffs. The one issue with Winslet’s Anning is that because she’s so withdrawn from the life around her, you become slightly the same and thus don’t always relate with any of the story outside of their relationship. Whether this is purposeful, I’m unsure, but it does mean a lot of lingering, long shots encourage a separation as a viewer, especially when the script, also written by Lee, falls a little flat with predictability.
However, Ammonite is a tough, considered drama that’s exquisitely established, I just wish there were a little more depth in the world surrounding them, even if it’s not something they cared for. It’s in terms of atmosphere where it excels, with the silence broken by the storms and the sea, as a momentary quiver in a candle flame signifies the fire burning deep in their relationship and a spark of passion in the darkness, which is evidently here for us to witness.