Francis Lee’s Ammonite might just be the loudest, quiet film I have ever watched. That might sound paradoxical, but the sound design is deliberate in playing up the sounds of the setting, allowing us to immerse ourselves in the daily routine of these characters. The romance between Kate Winslet’s Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison, on the other hand, quietly unfolds.
The film is loosely based on the real Mary Anning, who was an iconic woman in Science overlooked by history. Though there is no proof of romance between the two (or as Lee would say, there isn’t evidence to suggest Anning was straight either), the two did share a close friendship, frequently travelling together. Lee thus explores the overlooked spaces of female identity and companionship, especially with regard to accomplished women like Anning.
Winslet’s Mary lives a quiet life, collecting fossils on the beach and cliffs of Lyme Regis. She touches up anything of worth to sell in her little seafront shop, the bigger pieces sold off to rich men who could afford them, which means that the men would receive the credit when these fossils were displayed in museums, as opposed to the woman who had actually found them. She is in her shop one day when Roderick Murchison, husband to Charlotte, comes in to request a tour. He is so enchanted by Mary’s work and her abilities, but Mary herself is not one to toot her own horn, and we sense she feels uncomfortable with all the attention.
Charlotte has accompanied her husband, who took her on the trip in order for her to revive her spirits, but nothing seems to cheer her up, as she drifts mournfully like a ghost, her person always encased in black and dripping with despair. Roderick, unable to bear it any longer, deposits Charlotte in Mary’s hands, paying her to take care of his wife, and though Mary is reluctant to take on this task, he refuses to take no for an answer.
Mary knows nothing about helping someone like Charlotte, so she just brings her with her during her fossil hunts. Charlotte is initially resistant to this labour, and being forced to be up and about when she doesn’t want to, but this changes after Mary becomes her caretaker. Once again, we see that Mary doesn’t know much about caring for an ailing person, yet she does her best for Charlotte, and we sense the feelings of protection and love that have overcome her in the process.
However, Charlotte is a married woman whose days with Mary are numbered, so she tries to restrain herself and her feelings. Winslet does such a remarkable job in communicating these subtleties. Like I said, the romance is a quiet one, so there isn’t much dialogue, just the facial expressions and gestures of Winslet and Ronan to guide us through what Mary and Charlotte are experiencing.
In the hands of lesser actors, a film like this would be a dull affair, but with this pair, Mary and Charlotte’s love becomes a vivid, beautiful thing. Ronan shows us Charlotte’s gradual recovery in Mary’s care, while Winslet’s Mary eases out of her shell with Charlotte’s coaxing. The cinematography also does great work in framing their love, as the two enjoy the vibrant setting and bask in each other’s company, before retreating to the dark privacy of their shared bedroom for passionate acts of intimacy.
It must be said that Ammonite doesn’t really have much of a plot; all the film is heading towards is the end of Charlotte’s stay. There is no happy ending here, since Charlotte is married and must go where her husband is, while Mary has a life that she cannot uproot. The film offers no easy answers as to where the two end up, but it is certainly a bold take on Anning’s life, giving her a space in the storytelling world that is long overdue.
Review screener provided.
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