Ammonite (U.K./Australia/U.S.A., 2020)December 01, 2020
Repression and desire are often inextricably entwined, with the two dynamics in opposition. Such is the case in Francis Lee’s clear-eyed but heart-wrenching period drama, Ammonite. As much a tale of the patriarchal suffocation of those who break from outdated conventions as it is a love story, the film gains much of its traction as a result of the performance of Kate Winslet, whose nonverbal acting represents one of the finest portrayals of her career.
If one combs through history, it’s possible to find a female paleontologist by the name of Mary Anning (Winslet). She lived from 1799 until her death (from breast cancer) in 1847. Her list of friends included Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw). Her accomplishments were numerous; she was a much-respected collector of fossils, combing through the mud of seashore landslides in search of relics that she could clean and present to the learned men in London (who would often take credit for the discoveries). Little is known about Mary’s sexuality – it’s not a topic that was freely discussed in Georgian England – so it’s impossible to say with certainty whether she was heterosexual, homosexual, or asexual. There is no record of her having had any lasting relationships with men. If her interactions with women went beyond platonic friendships, evidence of those has not survived the passage of 200 years since the events would have occurred.
For the most part, Lee has remained faithful to the known facts about Mary regarding her occupation. The emotional core of the film, however – a sexual relationship between Mary and Charlotte – lies somewhere between highly speculative and completely fictious. That does nothing to lessen its impact nor does it detract from the theme of female disempowerment that Mary struggles against at every turn.
The movie transpires in either that late 1820s or early 1830s (Mary and Charlotte’s ages have been shifted to accommodate the actresses playing them) in the town of Lyme Regis in Southwest England. It’s there that Mary conducts her fossil-finding expeditions – daily excursions to the beach around the muddy, unstable cliffs that often reveal new “treasures” every time there’s a landslide. She takes the objects she collects back to her shop, cleans them, and makes them ready for sale. She lives a quiet, solitary life, sharing her home with her elderly mother, Molly (Gemma Jones). All of that changes on the day that Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his wife, Charlotte, enter her shop.
Roderick, a paleontologist and admirer, is eager for his wife to learn from Mary, so he leaves Charlotte in Lyme Regis while he goes off on an expedition. The relationship between the women doesn’t begin well. Mary, who could kindly be described as asocial, is unhappy about changing her schedule to meet Charlotte’s needs. But, as circumstances shift (most notably from an illness that forces Mary to nurse Charlotte), a friendship develops. The women, each deprived of affection in different ways, find the mutual attraction to be too strong to resist. When Mary succumbs to her physical desire, it’s like a bomb exploding.
The sex scenes, although far from the graphic level of Blue Is the Warmest Color, are sufficiently explicit to convey the intensity of feelings experienced. Lee shoots the scenes in a close, intimate fashion that stands in stark contrast to the drab, stately manner in which the out-of-bedroom scenes are presented. Winslet and Ronan admit to having “choreographed” the lovemaking sequences like a dance and the passion evident in their interaction – a desperate, hungry longing finding form – expresses deep, raw emotions.
Although it might be hard to single out any one performance in Winslet’s career as her “best,” her work in Ammonite deserves to be mentioned alongside Jude, Little Children, and The Reader (with all apologies to a certain film about a big ship). Lee’s script offers Winslet sparse dialogue so she is forced to do most of the heavy lifting non-verbally. It’s amazing – and heartbreaking – to watch the emotions chase one another across her face as Mary copes with unfamiliar passions like love, disappointment, loss, and what she perceives as betrayal. Body language plays as big a part as expressions. For much of the film, Mary is visibly tightly-coiled – a straight-backed picture of control. During the sex scenes, however, she lets go, allowing her humanity to emerge alongside her sexuality.
All of this is presented hand-in-hand with an examination of the role society plays in repressing Mary in terms of her occupation. Although unquestionably one of the most accomplished fossil-finders of her day, she is often marginalized and ignored. (This is most clearly shown in a late scene where she visits the museum in which her most celebrated discovery is exhibited.) Because of her gender, she was ineligible to join the Geographical Society of London and remained unpublished. Only long after her death were the importance of her scientific contributions recognized.
The film ends on an ambiguous note. Some may find this unsatisfying but it cements the reality of Mary’s circumstances and illustrates her pragmatic nature. It may not be the crowd-pleasing denouement some might crave but it feels right for the story. Made with delicacy and care by a cast and crew determined to animate a complex central character, Ammonite may skirt the truth when it comes to history but it uncovers a pure vein when exploring Mary’s inner life.
Ammonite (U.K./Australia/U.S.A., 2020)
Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, James McArdle
Screenplay: Francis Lee
Cinematography: Stephane Fontaine
Music: Volker Bertelmann, Dustin O’Halloran
U.S. Distributor: NEON