It’s difficult to imagine Francis Lee’s romanticized reimagining of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) being produced without the precedent of Mike Leigh. Though Leigh is best known for his modernist take on working class British everypersons, in more recent years he’s addressed British history that, even when it focuses on “great men” (Gilbert & Sullivan, Turner), tells their stories from a “peoples’ history” perspective. Though the hook of Ammonite is Anning’s romance with a would-be acolyte, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), the overarching theme is class friction that even scientific notoriety can’t transcend. The most fascinating parts of the movie are those scenes that simply show Anning going about her work, combing the beaches of the coastal town of Lyme for fossils, occasionally squatting to take a piss in the sand, and then hauling her spoils back to her dark shop where she attempts to sell them as either genuine artifacts to like-minded aficionados of geology, or tourists with a bit of cash to spend on odd conversation pieces.
Anning’s main claim to fame is a large prehistoric fish exhibited in the British Museum, but it seems only insiders know that a woman actually found it. One of these insiders, a man of means and amateur paleontologist, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), understands Anning’s place in the annals of British naturalists and endeavors to pick her brain on all things fossilized. Though put off by the man’s airs and preternaturally averse to company, Anning grudgingly accepts his request to look after his young wife, Charlotte, whom he has installed in the seaside town under advice that it might cure her “melancholia.” Of course, Charlotte’s affliction is nothing more than depression brought on by the stifling British patriarchy, something that Anning knows too well but manages to keep at bay with her work, which includes taking care of her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). Anning only takes on the task because of money, and Charlotte, who tags along on her expeditions, is at first an annoyance, but there is a mutual need that either woman soon realizes the other could fill.
The sex scenes are powerful but undermine the movie’s tone of forbearance. Lee, perhaps because he’s a man, seems to feel that when the social bonds that keep these women in their place are released through the passion of their feelings for each other, naturally the release will be explosive, but for the most part the lovemaking feels incidental to the class-marking plot development and Anning’s inner story, both of which are more interesting. Reportedly, the actual descendants of Mary Anning have objected to the movie because there is nothing in her available biography that said she had an affair with Charlotte Murchison. That’s hardly a valid criticism when Lee has said his movie is speculative. For sure, he understands Anning’s peculiar place in her time and explores that aspect with great sensitivity and imagination, but why does every such story have to be constructed around a core of tragic, everlasting love?
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Bunkamura Le Cinema Shibuya (03-3477-9264).
Ammonite home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2020 The British Film Institute, British Broadcasting Corporation and Fossil Films Limited