It is the 1840s in England. Self-taught Palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslett) has a reputation for the Jurassic fossils she has found on the coastline of Lyme Regis. She spends days searching sometimes treacherous cliffs that are liable to landslide during the winter months, but it is during these times that the ocean uncovers the layers of earth that hold the many fossils remains such as ammonites (extinct marine molluscs). The idea of digging up fossils and selling them to tourists has been popular for some time and Anning makes some money by running a shop. She is often visited by enthusiasts who want to learn more from her. Such is the case when she is visited by Sir Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan).
Roderick insists that he is fascinated by fossils and that Anning’s reputation as an expert will make her the perfect teacher. Anning is reluctant to be distracted by this man, but she is having financial difficulties and must find money to look after herself and her ageing mother. Later, she is employed to look after Charlotte as Roderick goes off to tour Europe. Charlotte is grieving from a recent tragedy and her husband thinks the sea air will help her to recuperate. Charlotte and Mary are very different people in terms of age, class and temperament.
AMMONITE is based in some of the biographical details of the real-life characters of Mary Anning, and Roderick and Charlotte Murchison. Director Francis Lee has taken these lives and fictionalised and dramatised them into an unusual love story. When we first see Anning she is defensive and closed off. Despite her many discoveries and her reputation, she is a woman in the early Victorian era and she is unable to join the Geological Society of London and often does not receive full credit for her work and discoveries. Charlotte Murchison is suffering melancholia as it was known at the time, what we would think of as depression. It takes some time for a friendship to develop between them and when it moves into a romantic and physical phase, neither woman knows how to proceed.
Winslett and Ronan are excellent in their portrayal of Mary and Charlotte. Director Lee provides images of a brutal and bleak coastline. The lighting and colour palette of the film places us in a world that is by turns harsh, wild, natural and absolutely different to our modern life. Mary and Charlotte are bound and restrained by the beliefs, conventions and religious convictions of their time. They don’t have examples of, or language for, what they are experiencing. Winslett and Ronan do beautiful work showing their characters’ internal lives. Watching Mary and Charlotte watching each other is one of the gifts of this film.
There has been some reviews and stories that question the fictionalising of the story and when you read up on the lives of the Murchisons and Anning there is reason to ask those questions. Charlotte and Mary’s relationship was real, there is existing correspondence to confirm their long-time connection. Their love affair is unconfirmed, but this was not a deal-breaker for me. The fictionalisation of Charlotte Murchison’s actual geological achievements is more problematical. There is no doubt that Mary suffered from the attitudes of the time and would have been properly celebrated by British science had she not been female and working class. However, the Anning fossil business was not a climb-down from not getting her due in scientific circles, it was in fact, the family business her parents started. Mary improved the profile and reputation of the “Anning Fossil Depot” by the excellence of her discoveries. As always, examining the details of a historical film based on a true story will reveal that drama is always about the compression of timelines and the interpretation of facts.
Francis Lee has stated clearly that this work is not meant as a documentary nor a biography of Mary Anning. Hopefully it leads people to learn more about a figure who deserved greater recognition in her lifetime. This is a beautifully-made film that relies on the skill and sensitivity of two actors who are very much at the top of their craft.
Duration – 120 minutes Rating – 7.5/10