Living off the Southern English coast of Lyme Regis, Mary (Kate Winslet) toils in obscurity. If she were a man, she would be a renowned paleontologist, but this is 1840, and Mary’s discoveries are sold to famous museums so she can pay her parent’s medical bills. Outside, the wind is constant, and the world feels damp. Mary doesn’t talk much. Why would she? The lines etched into her face and her mud-caked nails tell the story.
Enter Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle). He, too, is a scientist, and he knows all about Mary’s work. “Teach me,” he implores. “Take me to the shore and show me what you see.” Mary accepts—she needs the money—and Roderick learns more in a day than he would in a lifetime without Mary’s help. Then comes Roderick’s surprise: Now teach my wife.
And like that, Roderick exits Ammonite stage right and makes way for his young bride, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). She’s a thin little thing. Sickly, too. She doesn’t have much fun on the beach while Mary looks at rocks and falls ill. Mary cares for her—and starts to care for her—rubs a little balm on Charlotte’s back, and bam: Charlotte’s right as rain. Now the two can look for fossils together, make a little coin, and conduct a passionate love affair while Roderick is off doing whatever Roderick does.
Written and directed by British filmmaker Francis Lee, Ammonite (French for a fossilized shell of an animal) is a roundabout biopic of English paleontologist Mary Anning. Not that you would know that from the movie: Mary feels as if Lee could have dreamed her up for the purpose of this story. We don’t learn much about the real Mary other than she was an autodidact who lived on the razor’s edge of poverty and enjoyed the company of women. That last part seems to be Lee’s primary interest, though he takes his sweet time getting there. Relying on unglamorous handheld close-ups from cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine, Ammonite holds the romance at arm’s length as long as possible. It’s almost chaste until one night of passion explodes on-screen reminiscent of Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle. The difference: Akerman participated in Je Tu’s climax, while Lee and Fontaine photograph Ammonite with a certain sense of, shall we say, interest.
That’s not to say Ammonite is pornographic, though I’m sure some will see it that way. To each their own. What’s off-putting is the clunky manner in which Lee gets his characters there. Mary and Charlotte go from not talking to each other to liking each other to snogging just like that. Elsewhere in the story, there’s an allusion to another affair Mary had with a woman in town. We know even less about Charlotte. What is their attraction? There are no proclamations of adoration, respect, desire—not even pent up horniness. There are legions of movies where characters speak indirectly about their emotions; in Ammonite, Mary and Charlotte seem to feel indirectly.
One last thing: Save for Roderick, a doctor and a fossil buyer, Ammonite is void of men. Mary’s father is dead before the story starts, and the rest seem absent. Yet, Mary and Charlotte still feel oppressed by an unspoken force. It, sort of, takes the form of Charlotte’s maid and Mary’s mother—both knowingly disapprove without saying as much. Coincidentally, I watched the short film Joyce at 34 by Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill the same weekend I saw Ammonite, and Joyce at 34 shows women talking to other women in the manner you might expect when no men are present. They are honest, excited, talk over one another, listen to one another, express themselves, and so on. But Joyce at 34 was made by two women, and Ammonite was not.
Written and directed by Francis Lee
Produced by Iain Canning, Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly, Emile Sherman
Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, James McArdle, Gemma Jones
Neon, Rated R, Running time 117 minutes, Currently playing select theaters with a Video On Demand release scheduled for Dec. 4.