Ammonite has had its share of blasted luck. First, its writer-director Francis Lee attracted criticism in the press for inventing a lesbian relationship for the fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning. (There is no evidence that Anning, who died in 1847, had romantic attachments of any kind.) Then its thunder – if that isn’t the wrong term for so hushed a film – was somewhat stolen by Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Both pictures feature wild coastal locations, a period setting and a same-sex affair in which one party is married or about to be, but Lee’s movie is more than just “Portrait of a Lady with Fossils”.
Mary (Kate Winslet) has a dark, dank shop at the front of the home she shares with her mother (Gemma Jones) in Lyme Regis, where she sells what she calls “tourist fodder”. Her passion is trudging along the Jurassic Coast and clambering up its cliff faces unearthing prehistoric treasures. Middle-class fossil hunters often kept their discoveries (some established their own museums) but Mary doesn’t have that luxury. At 12, she unearthed a 5.2-metre-long skeleton, the first known ichthyosaur, then sold it to pay for rent and food. She is no stranger to giving up what is precious to her.
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The wealthy Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who wants to learn from Mary, tries to butter her up by calling her “the presiding deity of Lyme”. That won’t impress a woman who communicates in scowls and silence. Titanic fans be warned: this time around, Winslet has all the affability of an iceberg. The skill of her performance lies in its flickers of yearning, like faint signals transmitted from deep within the ice.
Roderick is the sort of heel who shushes his wife, Charlotte, and orders dinner on her behalf (“No sauce”). Playing that role puts Saoirse Ronan, the star of On Chesil Beach, in the position once more of being stuck on the Dorset coast in a disappointing marriage.
Though he joins Mary on an expedition, Roderick’s one discovery turns out to be prehistoric faeces. Aren’t men rubbish? Even when they find a fossil, it is literally shit. Not for the first time in cinema, a generalised truth – in this case that women have been overlooked and exploited by men – is paradoxically weakened when personified by a single character.
Setting off on his European travels, Roderick leaves his fragile wife in Mary’s care. Charlotte goes for a dip, wheeled out to sea in a bathing machine (one of several box-like settings in which we see her confined). She develops a fever and is nursed back to health by the older woman. Somewhere along the way, they fall in love. Correctly sensing that they would both be fossils before Mary ever got around to chancing her arm, Charlotte makes the first move.
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Lee’s 2017 debut God’s Own Country was also a queer love story about an inexpressive loner coaxed toward happiness by an outsider. The two films so closely resemble one another (natal imagery, skinny-dipping, 11th-hour problems of an identical nature in the central relationships) that it is tempting to wonder whether Lee is already working to a formula. His habit of punctuating scenes with cutaways to beetles, ants or blue bottle flies may encourage renegade viewers to place bets on which bug will get its close-up next.
Forgive these mannerisms, though, and Ammonite becomes a film of earthy, robust sensuality. The overtones of midwifery in Mary’s excavation work grow even more pronounced once Charlotte, who has recently lost a baby, rolls up her sleeves and mucks in. Mary at first dismisses the lump that Charlotte spots in the landscape (“It’s too big to move, you’re wasting your time”) before changing her mind, breaking off a rotten plank from a rowboat marooned nearby and lashing the prize to it with a length of rope.
That scene makes possible the script’s most delightful line of dialogue, when Charlotte says: “I’m pleased my rock was worth the work.” An hour into the film, Mary smiles for the first time. Perhaps she is beaming at the satisfying iambic tetrameter of the line, or because it has the ring of a freshly coined euphemism.
Nothing escapes Lee’s attention, but he is especially acute on matters of class. When Mary accepts an invitation to visit Charlotte’s London residence, she is directed by the maid (Wendy Nottingham) to use the tradesman’s entrance. Once the woman realises that Mary is, in fact, a guest, her face becomes a zoetrope of emotions flashing past at lightning speed. Disbelief, amusement, resentment, even disgust all take their turn, before she settles on an expression that seems to say: You’re no better than I am.
Once inside, Mary is pounced on by Charlotte, who makes no effort to conceal her ardour. Noticing that she is casting a wary eye at the help, Charlotte waves away Mary’s fears: “That’s just the maid,” she says. The poor woman’s stock is so low that she doesn’t even represent a threat. How brutal and brilliant of the film to show that the exalted obliviousness of love can still harbour its own kind of cruelty.
“Ammonite” is streaming from 26 March
dir: Francis Lee
This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special