Ammonite: Francis Lee’s Romantic Drama, Starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan

Ammonite, Francis Lee’s British romantic drama, is inspired by the life of British paleontologist Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet) and centers on the romantic relationship between her and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).

Ammonite film poster.png

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

In the 1840s, acclaimed self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. The days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists to support herself and her ailing widowed mother. When one such tourist, Roderick Murchison, arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European tour, he entrusts Mary with the care of his young wife Charlotte, who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. Mary, whose life is a daily struggle on the poverty line, cannot afford to turn him down but, proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, she clashes with her unwanted guest. They are two women from utterly different worlds.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in “Ammonite.”

Despite the chasm between their social spheres and personalities, Mary and Charlotte discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for: the realization that they are not alone. It is the beginning of a passionate and all-consuming love affair that will defy all social bounds and alter the course of both lives irrevocably.

Lee is a subtle director, with a unique visual perspective that’s muted but nonetheless elegant. Like his first (and better) film, God’s Only Country, this narrative is an intimate chamber for two figures, motivated by unlikely passion, and unfolding in harsh circumstances and landscapes.  Both films explore the interplay of gender, social class, desire, and forbidden love.

Renowned among male peers who get undeserved credit for her discoveries, Mary is forced to sell her finds to tourists in order to to support her sickly mother (Gemma Jones).

Shaped by years of struggle and resentment, she has become a recluse, living a life of quiet resignation.  She’s as hardened and inscrutable as the fossils she obsessively collects.

When Charlotte’s wealthy husband (James McArdle) pays Mary to keep an eye on his fragile wife (while he goes to Europe), the scene is set for a new kind of romance.

The pebbled beaches, roiling ocean waters, battering winds and icy mud feature prominently, adding much needed texture to the rather plotless and ultra-slow movie.

Lee’s script may be deliberately enigmatic, since not much is knowns by way of facts.  Instead of explaining her personality, he provides “a respectful snapshot,” to use his own words, and the result is an overly uneventful and understated feature.

The two central actresses, both accomplished, are asked to rely on quiet glances and gestures rather than explicit dialogue, and they rise to the demanding occasion beautifully.

It doesn’t help much that there are only a few secondary characters, such as an older neighbor (Fiona Shaw) and a charming doctor (Alec Secareanu).

The film calls for the attention–and patience– of viewers in dissecting the signals of these femmes, and for those willing, Ammonite provides the kinds of rewards seldom existing in mainstream cinema.

In January 2020, Neon acquired U.S. distribution rights to the film.

The film was set to world premiere at the Cannes Film Fest, prior to its cancellation due to the pandemic.

Selected to screen at the Telluride Film Fest in September, prior to its cancellation, the film had its world premiere at Toronto Film Fest in September 2020.

Kate Winslet was set to awarded the 2020 festival’s Tribute Actor Award.

Kate Winslet as Mary Anning
Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison
Fiona Shaw as Elizabeth Philpot
Alec Secăreanu as Dr. Lieberson
James McArdle as Roderick Murchison
Gemma Jones as Molly Anning
Claire Rushbrook as Eleanor Butters
Harvey Scrimshaw as Callow Youth