Review at a glance
This audacious portrait of the pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning was directed by Francis Lee (God’s Own Country). It covers a few months in the life of Anning and let’s just say Lee is less interested in the facts than in creating his own legend. As far as we know, the Lyme Regis fossil collector was God-fearing and romantically unattached. Here, Mary (Kate Winslet; awesome) doesn’t dwell on the divine, swears like a trooper and is gay. It’s possible some may be shocked by the enthusiastic love-making in Ammonite, but every ecstatic exhalation feels earned.
Lee’s filming, whether it’s on a freezing beach or in a silent museum, is viscerally tactile. The plot is spare. Tough and tenacious, Anning is afforded grudging respect by some within the scientific community, yet struggles to pay the bills for the shop where she lives with her mum, Molly (Gemma Jones). She’s also smarting over a failed love affair with her neighbour, fellow fossil-collector Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw, saucy, in her usual subterranean way).
Into this hard-scrabble and lonely existence comes Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the grieving wife of wealthy Scottish geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). Roderick swans off, leaving Charlotte in Mary’s care. Soon, our heroine is gently rubbing salve onto Charlotte’s long throat and staring in wonderment at her young charge’s pretty white feet. At this point, it seems impossible that Charlotte will return Mary’s feelings and at a cello recital, where Charlotte bonds with the charming Elizabeth, Mary almost implodes. For over 17 seconds, the camera stays locked on her agonised face.
Winslet digs deep and it’s agonising to watch, though inexplicably her performance failed to impress Academy voters enough to bag her a nomination at this year’s Oscars. Ronan was similarly overlooked, though she’s Winslet’s match in every way, capturing the essence of Charlotte, who looks as delicate as a Dresden shepherdess, but has an adventurous and steely core.
Charlotte’s evolution is one of the film’s many surprises. The film opens with a female figure in the British Museum, scrubbing the floor. She’s an invisible woman. Male scientists, strolling through the corridors, don’t notice her. You may be tempted to overlook her, too. By the time you reach the film’s emotionally walloping final scene, you’ll see everything differently. Misogyny and the ugliness of the British class system are given nowhere to hide
There’s more to Ammonite than lust and love. As with the rocks Anning can’t get enough of, this film contains multitudes.