Francis Lee’s Ammonite plays like a gender-swapped God’s Own Country cast back in time to the mid-19th Century.
Instead of the rolling hills of Yorkshire, the film gives us the raging sea around Lyme Regis. And rather than a nervy fictional farmworker, we have real-life palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet).
She lives with her ailing mother (Gemma Jones, Own Country‘s supportive nan turned crabby shut-in) and spends her days scouring the coastline for fossils; picking through the pebbles with her fingerless gloves and clambering up muddy slopes. Mary doesn’t suffer anyone gladly, foolish or otherwise, so she’s not greatly pleased by the appearance of Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle) in her workshop.
Agreeable if a little conceited, Murchinson represents the old-boys club of the Royal Geographic Society. He does, however, respect Anning’s discoveries – like the full ichthyosaur skeleton on display at the Natural History Museum – and wants her to tutor him.
With Roderick called away on business, Mary finds herself the reluctant companion of the man’s wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Ringletted and dressed in mourning weeds, she is wan where Mary is dour. When Charlotte falls ill, Mary is forced to care for her and, in doing so, discovers a tenderness for the young woman, which blossoms into desire.
Ammonite is about female bonds in a masculine world – be it between Mary and Charlotte, or Mary and fellow palaeontologist Elizabeth (an effervescent Fiona Shaw). Where men turn away in their time of need, or else ignore them all together, sorority is all that can be relied upon; if insecurity cannot undermine that, too.
However, the film never delves too deeply into these relationships, showing us only one or two facets of each. Though the filmmaking is exemplary – a scene at a recital might be the best dramatisation I’ve seen of unobtrusive social anxiety – it lacks the heft of God’s Own Country.
There are treasures to be found in Ammonite, particularly in Winslet and Ronan’s committed performances1, but Ammonite doesn’t reward much further digging. Hardly the centrepiece to any one’s career, but it’ll do as a curio as we enter awards season.