By Peg Aloi
The experience of watching Ammonite may prove slightly unsettling for some viewers because there is so little cinematic artifice at work.
Ammonite, directed by Francis Lee. Streaming on Hulu.
From British filmmaker Francis Lee, whose 2017 feature debut God’s Own Country drew passionate accolades, comes this unusual love story set in Victorian England. God’s Own Country was a realistic yet romantic tale of two young men who meet while working as shepherds (shades of the pastoral backdrop of Brokeback Mountain). One of them, whose life had consisted of drunken nights out and casual sex, learns to accept his sexual identity and discover his capacity for love. The performances of Josh O’Connor (seen since in Emma and The Crown) and Alec Secareanu (seen in Amulet and the TV series Baptiste) were widely praised. Lee’s intimate style coaxes powerful performances from well-cast actors, and he chose two stellar actresses for the leads in Ammonite.
Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning, a fossil hunter living on the coast in Dorset, England. Her discoveries are well known (one large specimen she found is housed in the British Museum in London), but she lives a modest existence. Mary supports herself and her elderly mother Molly (Gemma Jones, a veteran actress recently seen in the series Gentleman Jack) by selling fossil specimens and crafts, made out of seashells, in a touristy shop. Her face is perpetually stony, as if she were a sort of living fossil herself. Mary only seems to come alive when she’s out digging for fossils in the mud, on cold windy days. But she is content: her work keeps her physically vigorous and she has little appetite for social encounters. She treats customers buying her wares with as little courtesy as possible.
Early on, though, we get a hint of what’s behind Mary’s willful solitude. Mary stops at the home of a local acquaintance, Elizabeth (an exquisite cameo from Fiona Shaw). Mary is awkward and reticent; Elizabeth’s sidelong glances and breezy invitation to come in for a visit suggests a past intimacy between them. Mary, despite the drudgery and loneliness of her life, ignores Elizabeth’s friendliness, though there is a trace of pain in her expression. Soon after, a young couple from London visits the shop: Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Murchison effusively praises Mary’s reputation as a fossil hunter while Charlotte meekly explores the shop. Roderick hires Mary to go on a fossil-hunting outing to the beach and he explains that his wife’s frail physical condition requires ocean swimming and sunny days by the seaside (a common prescription in Victorian times known as the “ocean cure”). Things are tense with the couple; they apparently recently suffered the loss of a child, perhaps a miscarriage.
Roderick asks Mary if he will look after Charlotte in their hotel and take her fossil hunting while he travels for a few weeks for business. In need of money, Mary agrees, but she is put out and at first lets Charlotte fend for herself. When Charlotte becomes ill after swimming in the cold ocean, Mary brings her home into her tiny cottage to nurse her back to health. Once on her feet, Charlotte does her best to help around the house, but she is useless at domestic tasks. She finally shows a talent for making shell crafts, and is eager to learn more about Mary’s work. Charlotte’s doctor (played by Alec Secareanu) invites Mary to a concert. He is interested in seeing her socially, but Mary insists Charlotte come along. The younger woman moves easily among the concertgoers, comfortable with the social niceties that make Mary feel awkward and bored. When Charlotte strikes up an almost flirtatious banter with Elizabeth, Mary, unable to hide her emotions, leaves suddenly.
Timid and reticent in her husband’s presence, Charlotte becomes playful and energized when she’s with Mary. The two women grow closer, and a sudden sexual passion ignites between them. Their encounters are fast, almost greedy, with no trace of romance or sentiment. But their new intimacy transforms their excursions to the beach: Mary is smiling more, happy to be in Charlotte’s company, and they fall into a comfortable routine.
After Charlotte and Mary are forced to part suddenly, Mary returns to her solitary ways. On a visit to London, the possibility is dangled before her that she and Charlotte might be able to remain together. But the women come from such different worlds, with such conflicting ideas about what women’s lives could or should be, that an enduring love between them seems impossible. Mary’s fossil of a prehistoric sea creature, on display to museum visitors, is both a momentous achievement and a powerful metaphor. Kept safely under glass, it is an undeniable proof of the world’s history and evolution, but there is no awareness of what it took to bring it to light. Mary’s work is not just about digging; her dogged approach to life also reveals cracks in social norms that have become fossilized, suggesting ways that women can shape their own futures outside of the confines of marriage. Some women, like Charlotte, are not ready for the kind of independence Mary struggles for.
As with God’s Own Country, the experience of watching this film may prove slightly unsettling for some viewers because there is so little cinematic artifice at work. A musical score is rarely used to define or manipulate audience reactions. Lee allows awkward moments and intimacies to unfold naturally, as if we’re watching them in real time, undetected and yet somehow invited to observe. The performers are more than up to the task, especially Winslet, who conveys Mary’s range of emotions, her hard-won smiles and buttoned-up affect, her unbridled bursts of anger and affection, with seemingly effortless skill. The seaside location is perfect; the sounds of the ocean, the rainstorms and misty gloom lend this story (loosely based on history, and not intended to be strictly biographical) palpable authenticity. Unlike God’s Own Country, the ending of this love story is not about future possibilities. Ammonite is about the endless sameness of our days, slowly eroding and changing us in ways we barely notice — until fate or a decision to act cracks existence wide open.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.