Mary Anning, the real-life heroine of British director Francis Lee’s Ammonite (in theaters Friday, and available on VOD on December 4th), is best known as a renowned 19th-century paleontologist whose findings and research into Jurassic marine fossils along the English Channel revolutionized her field. And because she was a woman, Anning was excluded from the ranks of professional scientists credited for pioneering said field. She was ahead of her time, to say the least.
But Anning (played by Kate Winslet) is not quite living the life of esteem and acknowledgment she deserves, toiling away on the brutishly windy, rock-shored coast of England’s Lyme Regis, caring for her stern, sickly mother (Gemma Jones), and selling shiny, polished souvenirs to passing tourists. It’s a stable if not impoverished existence.
The arrival of Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and her husband, Roderick ( James McArdle), will upend everything. He asks Anning to look after his wife; she’s “sickly” and needs the fresh sea air to revitalize her-self. Anning be-grudgingly agrees. The women become lovers. And Ammonite, its title taken from those spiraling fossil shells with interiors full of divinely sculpted chambers, commits itself to exploring this secret romance, which by all indications — the period trappings, the misogynistic asides from men — hasn’t a chance.
That in itself proves an interesting bullet point. Like Anning, Murchison was a real woman. They were known to be friends. The question is, were they lovers? The historical record doesn’t tell us — but, then there’s a lot that history doesn’t tell us. So much of queer history has been rendered invisible by social norms that only our imaginations, supplanted by rare fragments of truth, can fill in those gaps. Or try to. In a way, Ammonite is like a bit of prestige fan fiction, awards-season “shipping” of the kind that queer Star Wars fans dream up about Poe and Finn.
With his 2017 feature debut God’s Own Country, about a Yorkshire farmer and a Romanian migrant worker passionately rolling in the deep, Lee has already carved out a filmmaking lane for himself as a chronicler of the hidden desires budding amid the most ashen, forbidding nooks of England. Love in a hopeless place is his specialty. But even more than the landscape, his follow-up belongs to its actors. Ronan is dependably strong, taking a slightly underwritten character and giving her unexpected substance. And Jones is not to be overlooked. Those blue eyes of hers, as brash and brutal as Lyme Regis’s shore, cut through the screen — and through us. She’s given a steely possessiveness that inspires curiosities about her, and really every woman here, that the movie disappointingly underexplores.
Winslet is given the job of playing both the daughter of this formative matriarch and an incredibly intelligent, starkly suppressed woman living in a regressive era. Even as the movie makes her arc somewhat predictable, the slow but sure softening of Mary’s demeanor toward Charlotte is a pleasure to watch. Yet the character feels just as constrained by the formula of period-piece, forbidden-love stories as by the social context of the times. It’s ironic, in the end, when she reveals herself to be, among other things, a woman who refuses to be contained.
Still, it’s a plain and inarguable fact that we all deserve a movie in which Winslet and Ronan, specialists in complex women, play unlikely lovers whose bonnets are just itching to get ripped off. A reasonable person wouldn’t complain. And the movie is designed, almost too conspicuously, to appeal to an audience that wants this above all else. It gives us what we ask for: the glimpses of voracious, exploratory sex between these women, the reminders of the limits that make their love impossible to imagine, the complicated gazes such women throw one another in lieu of saying aloud what cannot be said. What we don’t get is a real sense of those inner chambers evoked by its title: a richer curiosity about the story’s own absences. What Ammonite needs is to dig deeper and imagine more — to find a Mary Anning of its own to excavate what’s hidden inside it.