Francis Lee’s strange romance film is loosely based on the later life of paleontologist Mary Anning (1799-1847) Ammonite is a clinical but fascinating dig into historical facts. The film reworks some of Anning’s relationships known to the public only through her correspondence, deriving a romantic chronology in which one may or may not have existed. Whether strictly factual or in the truest sense of the word in the truest sense of the word truthful, his approach to queer history as a coded, long-buried document is the most demanding facet. But as a story of science, hidden desires, and sparks re-igniting the soul, it’s an indolent business.
Kate Winslet plays Anning with a weary determination that seems to hide a lurking loneliness, much like in the only known portrait of Anning. In fact, much of the film design feels like it was extrapolated from that single visual reference. The costumes, especially Anning’s, are in the same muted shades of blue, while the Dorset beach she visits is dotted with heavily muted earth tones, like the background of the painting. All elements are designed and captured in a way that makes them feel appropriately depressing. This version of Anning seems to lead a lonely life, apart from her brief interactions with her aging mother (Gemma Jones), with whom she shares a house and shop by the sea.
When an admirer of Anning, the Londoner Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), tries to tail her at an excavation, she doesn’t seem too pleased, although he offers to pay her. She has her own process of selecting rocks and other geological samples, and a keen eye for noticing when they might be hiding something of value or importance – a skill that is not reflected in her approach to people. She takes little notice of Roderick’s invalid wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) when accompanying him to the store, and she doesn’t seem thrilled when her mother and Roderick convince her to become Charlotte’s paid companion. Anning is a kind of fossil that is trapped in a moment. She hides work pants and sturdy boots under her flowing dress, but these are just the facts of her existence – professional norms and not a sign that she is trying to undermine her role in society. She has long accepted her place within (or rather outside) her male-dominated field.
Meanwhile, Charlotte feels trapped by the circumstances of her marriage and an implicit miscarriage. Roderick isn’t downright numb, but he’s careless enough with her feelings that she withdraws inward. She cocoons herself in a shell of grief and only shows up when Anning is forced to show her sympathy when she gets sick. So Anning and Charlotte’s friendship begins on the way to their secret affair, although it takes an extraordinarily long time before any passion or tension breaks through Ammonite‘s cold veneer. Even when it does, the moments when romance manifests itself through a change in mood or visual tone are vanishingly rare.
There is an exception early on when Anning visits an old friend, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), to buy medicine for Charlotte. From the moment Anning walks into Philpot’s garden, the lush greenery and warm rays of sun reflecting off her face make it clear that she is entering a space of memory and passion. The scene is full of life and color, even if it’s brief. The film seems to imply that Anning and Philpot were once involved, though Lee never directly says so. Instead, he relies on visual craft and the restrained body language of his actors to create a sense of subdued longing. In contrast, the film’s central relationship – between Anning and Charlotte, two women striving for physical and mental liberation – does not work from afar, even as Charlotte recovers and finds a new life and Anning begins beyond her limits looking out red existence.
The film is certainly at a disadvantage, thanks to the long shadow that Celine Sciamma’s sublime romance casts on the beach Portrait of a Burning Lady, which takes place seven decades ago, but has remarkable similarities to Lee’s historical fiction. Ammonite is simple and useful, but not without merit. While this sounds like a backhand compliment, it would make for a pleasant, unobtrusive aircraft viewing. (With just a hair under two hours, it would surely be easy to plan.) Where the soundscape is Portrait of a Burning Lady alternates between symphonies and haunting silence, and his emotional journey follows the example Ammonite
Each shot seems to take just as long to take in visual information, but not long enough to lure the audience into emotional secrets. It’s exactly the kind of movie viewer who can turn their brains off to watch them, although enjoying it might also require closing their hearts. Every moment feels fragmented and isolated, more like a staged vignette than part of a scene or larger story. This visual isolation complements the characters at first, although it collides wildly with the moments when they are supposed to break out of their forms and find meaning in each other.
Perhaps the film shouldn’t have focused that much on Anning’s romantic entanglements. On paper, at least, it would be cruel to suggest that people should be deprived of the rare weird romance in which characters use compassion to save one another from the brink of hopelessness. In inventing this fiction, however, Lee centers it above all else and seems to forego other important attributes of Anning’s life story, regardless of the larger conversation he brings to the table.
No one knows the details of Anning’s personal exploits, although, as with many historical figures, the numerous documented references to close friendships with other women, as well as far fewer references to heterosexual romance, suggest that reading between the lines is not difficult. Ammonite after all, does not pretend to be anything other than an artistic interpretation of history that subtly pushes back against the hair-raising notion that weirdness is somehow modern or novel. But what gets lost in the process – and shouldn’t have been in a romantic story either – is Anning’s significance as a truly significant historical figure. (Not to mention that it could have been her the inspiration for the tongue twister “She sells mussels on the coast.”) It is ironic that Anning’s place as a pioneering scientist is so ignored in a film named after him the many spiral fossils she discovered.
By disregarding Anning’s actual work and viewing it as a chore rather than an ongoing passion, Lee also renounces any intellectual curiosity he might have given her. Winslet works wonders with what she has given, as she often does. But while she occasionally finds moments of agony in the character, her version of Anning never has the opportunity to feel like a fully human, with a unique perspective on nature and what it means to be alive. Anning or Charlotte hardly exist outside of the way the conspiracy envisages them; There is no risk or no possibility associated with their romance, though circumstances so easily lend themselves to danger and dreams. The only time that tension arises is when they are trying to keep their lovemaking quiet so Anning’s mother doesn’t overhear them. But their romance never collides with the outside world – they barely acknowledge that the world exists – and none of the characters show anything that resembles the wish or desire beyond the immediate moment until the movie’s closing scenes.
Regardless of the story Lee and his team wanted to tell, this is a film where romance transforms into the inconspicuous and ordinary. Anning and Charlotte’s hands get dirty, but they wash them before they touch. They deal with forbidden passions without enjoying the forbidden. They don’t even seem to be having much fun. It’s all a bit too hygienic, despite the copious nudity and oral sex.
When you tell that particular story in that particular way, Ammonite sets expectations that nobody realistically expected of a Mary Anning biopic – and then does not fulfill them. It’s harmless and a lethargic rhythm is still there a rhythm at the end of the day. But the most dramatic drama the film will ever achieve is the dropping of a more deserving, but less prestigious-looking competitor in the 2021 awards season.