It’s in a wind-battered 1840s Lyme Regis that we meet Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning. She plies her trade as a palaeontologist, recovering fossils on the shore of the Jurassic Coast, finding solace in her craft. Yet it’s a life of repression that she lives, from her ailing mother who watches her every move, and from the men of the archaeological association who are happy to exhibit her findings, but unwilling to display her name alongside them.
From the get-go, Ammonite writes large its view of man as the repressor, opening on a female cleaner whose meticulously scrubbed museum floor is swiftly trampled over by buffoon men. The patriarchal society of the 1800s provides the framing for a tale of two repressed women who discover comfort and love in each other. As downtrodden as Mary feels, so too does Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte. She’s brought to Lyme to recover after the loss of her baby by her well-meaning but clueless husband Roderick Murchison, and then is unceremoniously neglected after her depression fails to miraculously lift. It’s with Mary, begrudgingly convinced by the offer of much-needed money, that Charlotte’s care is left. And it’s from there that a forbidden romance begins to bloom.
Charlotte and Mary’s relationship is mirrored by the Dorset town of Lyme Regis which provides the film’s backdrop. The place feels alive and evolving. At first it’s cold, devoid of colour, with nothing but the sound of wind and waves clattering across the seafront to accompany the pair. But as they unearth common ground in combing the beach together and their bond strengthens, the waves calm and the slightest hint of a score begins to set in, Charlotte literally bringing music into Mary’s life. Ammonite is full of endless amounts of these little signifiers of their growing love; they’re not always the most subtle, but they are effective in building up layers of depth in the burgeoning relationship.
But it’s Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet’s chemistry that truly makes the romance believable (as well as all of the complicated emotions that come with it). While Ronan is excellent as ever, in Mary Anning Winslet is given a complex gem of a character who allows her the platform to really shine. And she certainly takes advantage of it, putting herself firmly into contention come awards season. Some might find the character’s standoffish front tough to connect to, and Ammonite on the whole does keep you at arm’s length emotionally to begin with. But much like the relics that Mary digs up along Lyme’s shoreline, it’s worth chiselling a little deeper past that first hardened layer: there’s much of value to be found just beneath the surface.
Rating (out of 5):
Ammonite was part of the programme at the BFI London Film Festival 2020.