Forbidden passion in period dress has been the source of some visually stunning, emotionally enduring romances. Think of Holly Hunter in Jane Campion’s classic, still-stirring The Piano, walking on the beach in her flowing 19th-Century dress, and rushing off to see her rough-around-the-edges lover (Harvey Keitel). Or, from last year, the two 18th-Century women who fall in love in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. We can add to that list Francis Lee’s exquisite Ammonite, with Kate Winslet as the 19th-Century fossil collector Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, whose husband travels abroad and leaves her to recover her health by the sea in Lyme Regis.
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If you have seen the film’s trailer, best to shift your expectations. Fiery passion between the women does not emerge until well into the film. Lee’s style is more poetic and suggestive, as he takes advantage of an earlier era’s restraint to create a slow-burn love story. That elegant style was established in his first film, God’s Own Country (2017), about two gay men on a farm in northern England. However, Ammonite, with its heroines based on real historical figures, takes place on a larger social canvas.
Lee depicts Mary and her world in rich detail. She combs the lonely beach and rocky cliffs for fossils, her clothes and fingernails muddy, while the sea rages and the wind howls. The background sounds are as perfectly devised as the images, which range from the crystalline brightness of the shore and sky to the shadowy, candlelit rooms in the small house Mary shares with her mother. The dramatically beautiful seaside of Lyme Regis is, of course, also the setting of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, yet another story of a scandalous affair from a previous century.
The contained, potent performance is one of Winslet’s best
The historical Anning made important discoveries that men took credit for, as the film notes in a deft opening sequence, when the skull of an ichthyosaur is put on view in the British Museum. On the display label a male buyer is given credit for its donation, replacing the notation that Mary Anning discovered it. The film picks up with Mary eking out a living with a shop where she sells souvenir fossils to tourists. Winslet makes her stern and brittle but immensely sympathetic, accustomed to disappointment and expecting little more than survival. The contained, potent performance is one of Winslet’s best.
Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a would-be paleontologist hoping to learn from Mary, arrives with his delicately pretty wife in tow. Charlotte is taciturn for a different reason to Mary’s. We discover through a brief conversation that they have lost a child. “I want my bright, funny, clever wife back,” Roderick complains, signalling the patriarchal privilege and authority that the film never presents heavy-handedly. He pays Mary to look after Charlotte and take her fossil hunting while he is gone. Lee draws the contrast between the brusque, defensive Mary and the sad, timid Charlotte too starkly at first. Charlotte wears ladylike gloves. Mary squats and pees on the beach. But he gets away with it because Winslet and Ronan give their characters hidden depths.
When Charlotte becomes ill and collapses in Mary’s shop, she moves into the cottage and their dance toward romance begins. In reality, Charlotte and Mary became lifelong friends. Lee acknowledges that there is no evidence hinting at a sexual relationship, but for his artistic purposes, those facts don’t matter. Mary and Charlotte not only stand in for women of their era. They are alive on screen as individuals confined by Charlotte’s marriage, by the mores of society, and by their own confusion and reticence.
At times the dialogue is minimal, but the camera captures revealing glances and reactions. When Mary needs salve for the ill Charlotte, she must buy it from Elizabeth Philpot, played by the perfectly cast Fiona Shaw. One longing gaze from Shaw tells us that something intense has happened between Elizabeth and Mary. Winslet’s guarded posture and downcast eyes tell us that it ended badly. That is all we know or need to know at that point, as the film builds its intrigue.
We know, of course, where the relationship between Mary and Charlotte is headed, but not how. With some counterintuitive moves, Lee keeps us guessing about who will make the first tentative advance. A couple of explicit sex scenes leave no doubt about the overpowering, long-thwarted physical attraction between them. But the film gives equal emphasis to how the women change, as Charlotte comes to life and Mary drops her protective shell.
One of Lee’s brilliant choices is to refuse to put a soppy romantic gloss on the affair. He suggests instead that passion can blind lovers to a true understanding of each other as easily as it can open their eyes. Another smart choice was casting the affecting Gemma Jones as Mary’s mother, whose own heart-wrenching story plays out gently. It doesn’t spoil the ending to say that the final image returns to Mary’s discovery in the British Museum, where she and Charlotte look at each other from opposite sides of the glass display case. It is a quiet scene as lovely and as brutally honest as the rest of Ammonite.
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