In 1840s England, acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter Mary Anning and a young woman sent to convalesce by the sea develop an intense relationship, altering both of their lives forever.
Following up his critically acclaimed debut God’s Own Country (2017), Francis Lee is back with the highly-anticipated Ammonite. Focusing on the life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), the unsung pioneer of palaeontology, Lee reimagines this extraordinary woman’s private life as a queer romance with her friend, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).
Switching the Yorkshire Dales for the equally weather-battered coastal town of Lyme Regis (specifically a World Heritage Site known as the Jurassic Coast), we meet Anning meticulously at work in the shop she runs with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), polishing and chipping away at fossils or creating shell-lined mirrors and other tat to sell to tourists. Her quiet and closed off life is disrupted with a visit by geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who entrusts Anning with the care and companionship of his wife Mary (who’s suffering from “melancholia”) for a “premium price.” Living in poverty and unable to turn down valuable cash, Anning reluctantly accepts Mr Murchison’s offer.
Ammonite moves at a snails pace; it’s pensive, but slightly undermined by some rather on the nose allegories (Charlotte staring at a butterfly trapped in a glass springs to mind). One can feel the harsh setting as Anning snuggles herself under several layers in bed, when the cold waves violently crash against the shore, as she and her mother obsessively clean a collection of eight white ornaments (which come to bear some significance), and through their meagre meals of vegetable broth. Because of this, Anning and Charlotte’s first touches feel extremely tender (a pat on the back, a peck on the cheek which develops into a kiss), and are a gentle break from the harsh poverty and mucky work.
This conjures memories of God’s Own Country, where Johnny and Gheorghe’s first touches are similarly tender after their hard work on the farm. But the romance between Anning and Charlotte just doesn’t quite take off in the same way it did with those men. Whereas Johnny eventually opens, Anning stays very much locked off, and so Ammonite may go against expectations. There are a couple of excellently choreographed sex scenes (which Winslet and Ronan organised themselves), but the emotional connection just isn’t there in the same way it was in God’s Own Country. Most of the connection between Anning and Charlotte in Ammonite seems to be mostly physical. Although they do eventually warm to each other and ‘unlock’ one another’s more positive traits (Charlotte, for example, becomes slightly more confident), it doesn’t feel like we see enough of this to invest ourselves in their relationship.
Perhaps it’s unfair to make this comparison. After all, many have similarly been comparing Ammonite to Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) because of some parallels. This will undoubtedly affect audience expectations, perhaps unfairly so, but Ammonite works much better as a character study of Mary Anning, with a cute queer romance to boot, rather than an out-and-out lesbian romantic drama.
To their credit, Winslet and Ronan turn in solid performances. But for the reason above, it’s Winslet who truly shines, as she’s able to reveal so much with just a mere glance. In interviews, the actress mentions how much she threw herself into this role, learning how to dig for fossils and draw her finds. She’s a powerhouse and carries much of the film. But as good as each actor is in their individual roles, there’s a lack of chemistry and romantic spark between them that prevents any sort of emotional impact.
There’s no record of Mary Anning’s romantic life, so it’s important to not that this is certainly not a biopic. After some initial backlash regarding the lesbian story, Francis Lee defended (rightly) his narrative choices. Despite there being no evidence Anning was a lesbian, equally there’s none that points to any heterosexual relations either. There have been many instances where historic figures have had their queer lives airbrushed from history (many people learned about Alan Turing post-The Imitation Game) so why not do the opposite?
Ultimately, Ammonite lacks the emotional depth of Lee’s last work and is far from the God-tier cinema that was Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Francis Lee is an excellent filmmaker, however, and audiences should look forward to his next picture. But, unfortunately, Ammonite doesn’t quite meet his own high standard.
UK • AUSTRALIA • USA | 120 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Francis Lee.
starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alex Secăreanu & Fiona Shaw.