Set in the 1840s, acclaimed palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) continues her daily search for fossils along the harsh coastline of Lyme Regis. Although she has made significant contributions to the scientific community, she is now largely ignored by the male-dominated historical society and spends her days looking for common fossils to sell to rich tourists. When wealthy visitor Roderick Murchison asks Mary to care for his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in his absence, she begrudgingly accepts due to her financial needs. However, as Mary and Charlotte spend more time together, their mutual support for one another starts to bring their hearts back to life. As their friendship turns into a passionate love affair, the two women’s lives are irrevocably changed.
Written and directed by Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), Ammonite is a slow burn of smoldering sensuality. Based on the life of Mary Anning but not on true events, the film is an interesting look at a historical context without feeling forced to recreate actual events. As a result, Lee’s film is an intriguing mix of fact and fiction as he manages to tell a story that seems to flesh out the experiences of women during the 19th century yet also maintains his creative license to explore the modern female voice as well.
While period pieces can become tropes unto themselves, the performances in Ammonite help to elevate the film above other more recent examples. Both Ronan and Winslet have genuine chemistry onscreen and each unspoken glance offers more passion than any flurry of poetic words. Both women are excellent together onscreen yet it’s Winslet that is absolutely remarkable as the emotionally stilted Mary. Anchoring the film with her performance, Winslet says few words yet communicates much. Like the fossils that she uncovers, Mary too is frozen in time and requires gentle care to free her soul from her hardened emotional shell. As such, Winslet brings a complicated subtly to the role that reveals both an inner strength and underlying fear.
While the film’s sweeping romance remains the focal point of the narrative, the empowering of women in the midst of a toxically masculine society is telling. Having both been taken advantage by men in different ways, Mary and Charlotte have both been silenced by their culture. Though the effects of Charlotte’s abusive relationship are much more visible, Mary too has been neglected by the male-dominated historical society that features her work. As such, both women have lost their voices at the hands of others. As they begin to carry one another’s burdens, sparks of life begins to resurface within them and their spirits lighten.
While Ammonite uses this spiritual resurgence to emphasize their sweeping romance, the joy that stems from feeling heard and seen by another is far more important. By highlighting the healing power of relationships, the film serves as a reminder of the value of each human soul and how easily they can be trampled on by the ignorant and selfish. Then, when their sexual journey finally comes together, their affair stems not merely from some base, animal attraction but from the fact that both women have empowered one another in ways that have restored their souls. In this way, Ammonite recognizes that genuine intimacy and mutual support is far more life-giving than raw physical attraction and celebrates the spiritual spark that such relationships bring.
While the film may not be for everyone, there is something poignant about Ammonite that stays with the viewer after the film is complete. As Mary and Charlotte’s relationship blossoms, their love carries an intimate beauty that is often missing from today’s romance films. Like each fossil that the women, Lee shows the viewer that the heart can be restored once again, even when it has been embedded in the muck and mire.
Ammonite is in select theatres now and will be available on VOD in early December.