The fossil-hunting is more interesting than the sex: Ammonite reviewed

27 March 2021

9:00 AM

27 March 2021

9:00 AM


Major digital platforms

Ammonite is writer-director Francis Lee’s second film after God’s Own Country, one of the best films of 2017, and possibly the best film about a closeted gay Yorkshire sheep farmer falling for a migrant worker ever. This is another unlikely romance, but set in the 19th century between the real-life palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and real-life Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), whose wealthy husband had an interest in geology. Mary and Charlotte were friends yet there is no historical evidence they had an affair. This is all poetic licence but told so poetically you will substantially buy it, albeit with a few reservations. Plus it’s Winslet and Ronan and while I’m not usually a sucker for BOGOF offers, you’d surely be crazy to turn this one down.

It all takes place in Lyme Regis. Mary is poor and collects the fossils — clawing out rocks with bare hands, smashing them open with a hammer — that she sells as ‘tourist tut’ from the begrimed shop where she lives with her ailing mother (a very touching Gemma Jones). This is not the prettified Lyme Regis of, say, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Life is harsh, the landscape is harsh, the weather is harsh, the work is harsh. Mary is taciturn, solitary, withdrawn. She has dirt under her fingernails and red-raw hands. She doesn’t wear a bonnet once, even though it might have cheered her up, I thought in my shallow way.

She hasn’t made a good discovery in years. She had excavated a complete Ichthyosaurus skull, which went to the British Museum, when she was just 11 years old, but men have always stolen the credit for her finds. (The patriarchy. It gets everywhere.) Her character, interestingly, asks for no sympathy but the metaphor is not lost on us. If she were cracked open, what might be revealed? Can she be teased from her shell?

Enter Charlotte, whose husband wants Mary to keep an eye on his wife while he gads about Europe for several weeks. Charlotte is doll-like and sickly and bereaved and useless. She doesn’t even know how to peel a carrot. Sea bathing terrifies her. She and Mary initially engage in sullen, begrudging walks on the beach at a distance. (See also: Portrait of a Lady on Fire.) But they become closer and closer until a gaze becomes a touch and the touch becomes a hand up a skirt and then the rest, some of which is quite steamy.

The film isn’t realistic in the sense that we can say any of it happened, yet it’s otherwise intensely realistic. It is the first period drama I’ve seen where someone asks where they might pee. And the sound design is phenomenal. Of course the sea crashes and the wind howls. But crabs scuttle, chairs creak, matches strike, pen nibs scratch too. This is all about mood and atmosphere and, probably, depression. Everything is, more or less, dismally grey. And the dialogue is sparse. ‘It’s mushrooms for supper,’ might be all you get in one scene.

This is a film that relies on its actors to put everything across, and they are tremendous. Winslet can, for example, wordlessly convey the internal conflict of a character who is softening while desperately trying not to soften. Charlotte could have been rather insubstantial but Ronan brings a heft and complexity that isn’t written and otherwise just wouldn’t be there.

On the reservation side, as the two are never allowed to have a conversation, and must eat their mushrooms in silence, we never move meaningfully beyond physical desire. Consequently, you can’t care about this pairing as much as you might. In fact, I found I was far more interested in Mary’s fossils, and all that scrabbling in mud, than in her sex life. So Mary’s work meant the film worked. And the two hours did fly by.

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