dir: Francis Lee
Ammonite. It’s a fossil.
Why is this film called Ammonite? Because one of the characters was famous for the fossils she discovered, back when women in England weren’t allowed to vote, own stuff or count numbers out loud for fear of shriveling up all the gentlemen’s dicks with their fancy book learnin’.
Mary Anning found a bunch of sea monster fossils at a place called Lyme Regis, from the age of 11 onwards, and was quite adept and skilled when it came to finding, excavating and drawing them. She accumulated a lot of knowledge, but she couldn’t be allowed to join the Royal Society of Geologists or even call herself a science type person because, obviously no testicles means not scientist.
But she found and excavated what would be called ichthyosaurs, pteranadons and plesiosaurs and stacks of other fossils, including ammonites, those spiral shells so synonymous with limestone, and she was good at it. Few people start an entire branch of science, but she was surely one of the progenitors of modern paleontology (if that isn’t oxymoronic language, and I think it probably is). This is the rare instance where I knew something about the person a movie is about (this is not a biopic, not really), but, like most British figures from history, I knew about her because of an episode of Horrible Histories which I watched with my daughter years ago. I thought it was a pretty fascinating story about a pretty dauntless, accomplished person, who barely got credit in her lifetime for her work or achievements.
Ammonite is a story about Mary Anning and her relationship with the world, not so much about her achievements. The film conjectures that Mary’s experiences in life, being one of the only surviving children of a family of ten, where most died soon after birth, and living with the grimmest ghoul of a mother (Gemma Jones) in a place that looks utterly soul-draining, had an impact. She, herself, is fossil-like, stone cold, living only to please her desolate, dour mother and find more fossils for sale. It’s their only source of income, and, amazingly, fossils don’t go for much, because there isn’t much of a market.
As portrayed in the film, a dilettante, a prancing smug poser of a jerk called Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) walks into her shop and fawns over her and her discoveries. She, being Mary Anning (the always great Kate Winslet), listens to his prattle with unconcealed disinterest. She does like to make a sale, though.
He wants to tag along with her and see her work, which doesn’t interest her either, as she is a solitary type, but he offers to pay, which she needs. A story as old as capitalism – the unwilling brought to the table by their need to avoid starvation.
She gives him a cursory glimpse of the work she does, with which he has some passing familiarity, but he actually has a different agenda.
Murchison travels with his young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), and he is inexplicably looking for somewhere to dump her for a while because ew, she’s a girl and a drag, and double ew, she’s suffering from depression after the recent loss of a child. A scene in bed where Charlotte just seems to be needing gentle comfort, physical connection, is met with a turned back and a gruff “it’s too early for another child.”
It’s so cold, colder than the cold waters of the Lyme Regis coast. Some overpaid quack somewhere has told Murchison that the only cure for his wife’s melancholia is sea air and a swim in ocean waters, not, you know, listening to your partner, supporting her, helping her grieve, sharing your own emotional struggles with your feelings of grief, guilt or regret so that she knows she’s not going through this alone, none of that nonsense. Salty air and freezing water, that’s the ticket.
He contrives to leave her at Lyme Regis, with the plan that she accompany Mary on her digs, learn the work, basically keep her occupied while he goes to the continent and fucks his way through the brothels of Venice, presumably. Mary and Charlotte, as the film forces them together, have nothing in common and no common ground upon which to build. Mary cares about nothing and no-one, being completely emotionally shut down, and Charlotte looks at Mary like she’s a dirty alien.
On the husband’s insistence (though he is long gone) Charlotte takes a swim and almost immediately falls ill with a fever, falling unconscious on Mary’s doorstep. Against her will Mary looks after her, and, because of a different doctor’s advice, endeavours to nurse her back to health.
The doctor appeals to her by asking whether she would want to look after a fellow member of the sisterhood, because why not? Mary takes a long time to even give a visual hint that she agrees that such a thing applies to her.
It’s really a remarkable performance. It’s easy to play an undemonstrative, shut down person (well, I say that with no actual knowledge of how to play anything or act anything, let’s be honest), because in theory you just have to stare blankly with nil expression on your face. Winslet is too great an actor to do anything that simply. She has to pare down her acting such that she still has to convey that there are thoughts and feelings behind her expressions, even when she looks like there is nothing getting through, from whatever is going on within, to what it might seem like on the surface. She still manages to convey so, so much.
Saoirse is great too, but, come on, she’s is like the three thousandth person to be overshadowed by Kate Winslet in a movie. Her part isn’t as complicated, even if she carries a fresher sorrow at the beginning. She just has to act and look young and hopeful, to be a tremendous contrast with the practicality and world-weariness of Anning, and they both do tremendous work in their roles.
In a convention as old as storytelling, in looking after young Charlotte, Mary physically connects with a human, and it has some repercussions. In seeking a salve to help her patient, she visits Elizabeth Phillpot (Fiona Shaw), an older woman with whom something, we glean, must have happened in the past, or at least they were friends at some stage. Mary’s discomfort pretty much implies if she hadn’t needed to get something for Charlotte, she’d never have come at all, despite the friendliness and concern on Elizabeth’s part.
Emotions, and the avoidance thereof are becoming a minefield even more fraught that before, and at the same time she doesn’t seem to be lacking for suitors. The handsome doctor (Romanian actor Alec Secăreanu) who advised her to look after Charlotte invites her to a soiree, and Mary is insistent that Charlotte come along too. To say that Mary is uncomfortable in a public setting with people would be a profound understatement, but perhaps she thinks there is some benefit to reconnecting with the world, which is a form of optimism you wouldn’t have credited her with up to now.
Of course, when she sees Charlotte and Elizabeth chatting excitedly, she falls apart and flees. The scene where the cellist starts playing a piece, and Mary’s entire internal monologue runs its entire course listing a thousand things that have gone wrong, without any outward display of such, is heartbreaking.
She walks home alone, in the rain, which, at this time in Britain’s history, usually meant death. She survives, though. And so does Charlotte, when she comes home indignant at being abandoned.
What ensues from here is quite shocking. We know they’ve been building up to this, but it’s still shocking. I think it’s meant to be, it’s shocking to them, even if we knew enough about the movie beforehand to know this was coming. It happens like, forgive my indelicate language here, an explosion of raw need, the rawest need not for sex specifically, but for affection, physical felt affection from another person, with another person. These two women are so starved for affection that anything that happens between them has to be a good thing, right? Even with everything, we are told, that is stacked against women in that day and age, we are still meant to be happy for them.
In credit to the two leads, this is not a timid or implied physical encounter. The camera doesn’t pan towards some sheets or a curtain after they kiss, implying that they had satisfying sex far away from our prying eyes, waking up with smiles on their faces the next morning.
No, that’s not what happens at all. It’s hard to talk about these sex scenes, which I would argue aren’t gratuitous or explicit, but there’s a lot going on at the same time, and it’s hard to argue that they’re not crucial to the narrative. You could argue that the ‘mechanics’ of them surprise you considering the era they’re depicted in, but I am reassured by the fact that people have been having sex for millions of years, and that even if men have been disappointing women for millennia, women surely, it could be hoped, have been able to get each other off during the ensuing time as well.
What I can say is that they're not there with the male gaze in mind. The director’s previous and first feature film, God’s Own Country, which was loosely autobiographical, was about two men on a farm getting up to their own confusing and eventually loving shenanigans. So, yeah, he’s not here to be exploitative of these ladies, I don’t think.
From what I’ve read the two actors choreographed the scene themselves, and Winslet insisted that they do the scene on Saoirse’s birthday, so, Happy Birthday, Saoirse. Hope a good time was had by all.
If you’re wondering how Saoirse is pronounced, it’s “Sor-sha”. You’re welcome.
We expect, we want, we hope sex is transformative in these kinds of stories, in the same ways that we hope it is in our own romantic lives. In truth, like in life, like in this movie, just because you really, really needed to have sex with someone, just because you really wanted to connect with someone in order to heal a bit, doesn’t transform the world into a working model of satisfaction for ever more. The distance between Mary and Charlotte can be described in miles, in classes, in expectations, in ages, but it’s even described in time, as in, in some ways it could be millions of years sitting between them, as we might surmise by the framing of the final scene at the London museum.
Sometimes people are too damaged by life to think they deserve happiness, and sometimes people create expectations, with the privileges they feel might let them skate through surrounding them, that the cruelty of the surrounding world might not be an insurmountable obstacle. Charlotte imagines, towards the end of the film, that there could be a way for her and Mary to carve out their own little version of paradise.
I don’t think it’s helpful to argue about the accuracy of the historical record when it comes to judging Ammonite as a film. What’s the point of judging it anyway, you judgmental arsehole? What I mean is, we will never know unless Mary Anning, Charlotte Murchison or Elizabeth Philpot are resurrected by a particularly sophisticated Ouija board whether any of them had sexual attraction towards other women or each other. And even then they might think twice about asking such a personal and rude question. How dare you, sir?
What is known is that Elizabeth was a mentor and dear friend to Mary, and taught her heaps about fossil hunting and excavating, and that Mary and Charlotte were firm friends, Charlotte having become famous in her own right for her geological drawings and expeditions with her husband, who hopefully wasn’t as much of a prick in real life. The standard assumption that they “couldn’t” have been gay or had sexual encounters with each other presupposes the heteronormative bullshit that all people are straight, STRAIGHT goddamnit by default, and anything else, at any other time, is an aberration. It’s dull. It also ignores the fact that the bigger impact these women had on each other for good or for ill, is more than just whether they mashed their various body parts together. The impact that female connection and friendship, at any time where such things are viewed warily or disdained, means that its importance is magnified.
I loved watching the film, though I’m not delusional enough to think it’s a heart-stirring romance for the ages. It’s sad, but it’s not sentimental, or mawkish. It doesn’t try to oversell the drama, or amp up the stakes. If there are obstacles to the main couple, it isn’t the bigotry of a bygone age (or the bigotries that still linger, beyond the misogyny that allowed men to take credit for Mary Anning’s discoveries). It’s loving, and sad, and briefly uplifting, and then we return to the world where gaps can be unbridgeable, and love can seem secondary to surviving as the person one has always been. Or it can seem less essential than preserving one’s agency, one’s identity, even if it is not pleasing to others. I think it’s a more complex story than I’m making it sound, but then I could be projecting a lot onto it.
8 times to surround yourself with fossils is also to occasionally look up and say “hey, maybe I’m not so old after all” out of 10
“I know I hurt you terribly, and I’m deeply sorry for that. But I just couldn’t be sure that I could live up to you.” - Ammonite