Drama, Romanc, 2 h
Log line: In 1840s England, Charlotte Murchison is sent to convalesce by the sea and develops an intense relationship with fossil hunter Mary Anning, altering both of their lives forever.
A look less into life’s heroic turbulence and more into the stoic mundanity of constrained existence, Ammonite is a love story and much more.
I had to watch Ammonite twice to make sure I haven’t missed anything and I’m sure I did. Ammonite is a subtle film. In its quietness it demands attention from its viewers, so put your phones down, mute that Facebook tab, save the crisps for another film, dim the lights and just… watch with both your eyes and mind open or you might miss the twitch of a finger, a curl in the corner of the lips, a tamed gesture of affection that makes all the difference.
It has all the ingredients of an independent, low budget film, I should know, I come from a country that produces no other type of film but indies; austere settings, bleak, cold colour palette, scarce dialogue, hidden motifs and metaphors, masterfully restrained performances and a sort of visceral, biting honesty. A look less into life’s heroic turbulence and more into the stoic mundanity of constrained existence, Ammonite is a love story and much more. It’s not a flamboyant romantic drama, a showcase of all-consuming love, struck by tragedy. No, although it has romance, as well as love, and tragedy all weaved together in a story of silent female resilience. Francis Lee’s drama, featuring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, builds a microhabitat for its female lead and her lover. Based on the true historical figure of Mary Anning (Winslet), a palaeontologist from Lyme Regis, Dorset, whose merits have been overlooked by the Scientific Society of the 19th century and whose discoveries have been presented under names with a more masculine resonance and Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), a London gentlelady suffering of “mild melancholia” after the loss of her baby. Not much is known about Mary Anning’s personal life, other that she never married, she was struck by lightning as a young child, her father died when she was 11, her mother lost 8 children, and her correspondence with Charlotte Murchison. While the characters were real people, the romantic affair between the two women is Francis Lee’s poetic licence, but it seems fitting for the Mary Anning he created to have such a deep bond with another woman. The plot is somewhat linear, predictable for a film of its genre, but Winslet and Ronan inhabit their characters so profoundly, so completely that even though the script uses some pretty obvious tricks to bring them together, they make it seem organic, natural.
The beauty of Ammonite stands in its stillness, in its silence, in the details. The abundant close-ups of Mary Anning’s humble home, of her utensils, of her mother’s (Gemma Jones) porcelain figurines – symbols of her lost babies (strangely echoing The Favourite’s 26 rabbits) – of rocks on the beach and hardboiled eggs, of the shop’s windows and flickering wax candles, all shape the main character’s world. Close-ups of Winslet’s rough hands (which I dare say are just as eloquent as the ones of her face), dirty fingernails, messy brown hair, dark coloured, dull clothes visually build the character. Mary Anning is not a martyr or a rebel, a figure of persecution. She just is. She carries her trauma like she carries her rocks. An introvert, socially awkward, she doesn’t try to fit in, she doesn’t make that effort. She walks the shore with silent passion and her voice becomes just a little more vibrant when she talks about fossils. Her relationship with Charlotte develops slowly, stealthily. It seems to creep up on both the characters and the viewers towards the visceral, messy, raw climax.
The two females seem antithetical: Mary, strong, steadfast, uninterested in the way she looks and Charlotte, frail, but determined, coquette, young and full of a soul that’s been shadowed by a great loss and a husband that seems to dismiss her needs and opinions. They find comfort, understanding, love and camaraderie in each other and their relationship is not surrounded by shame, guilt or persecution.
Ammonite feels in a way like a puzzle, that needs every piece put together to shine. The cinematography is not only beautiful, but it’s abundant in clues and visual metaphors. Mary Anning’s psychological construction is mirrored in the image of the shells, the rocks waiting to be cracked, the moth in the glass, the hard-boiled eggs, the chicken foetus Mary’s sickly mother finds when she cracks the egg, which echoes her personal trauma as well. The relationship between the two women is hinted at in the score, the scratchy noise left by Mary’s pencil on the paper when drawing Charlotte, the deafening harsh sound of her peeling potatoes is softened when Charlotte walks in. Charlotte brings with herself piano notes while walking on the beach and her presence is followed by musical harmonies. Mary’s shy gesture of fixing her hair is seen twice in the film, before she enters Elizabeth Philpot’s (Fiona Shaw) garden, and much later when she’s waiting outside Charlotte’s door. This gesture, combined with the bright, saturated chromatic of Elizabeth’s garden, the ear-piercing bird chirping is enough to suggest a past relationship between the two. The last shots in the British Museum are revealing as well, for both the characters, the context they’re set to exist in, and their place in this world. For a brief moment, Mary’s face is framed over a male portrait in an all-male portrait gallery, where she, like many other women should have had a place for her merits, and her discoveries. The final image we’re left with is of Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison gazing at each other through the glass, over Anning’s Ichtiosaurus, being the only women in the museum hall. In this patriarchal world that both overlooks and restrains them, they have made a place for themselves. As narrow and fleeting as that space was or would be, these two women have created it and it’s theirs.
Ammonite is yet another Sapphic slow-burning period drama. It had the misfortune to come after Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which set the bar so high it’s hard to reach, but Ammonite has merit and authenticity in itself and it grows on you if you allow it. Like the beach Mary Anning walks so stoically in search of hidden gems, Ammonite is full of hidden beauty, empathy, soul, one just needs an ounce of patience, a will to see more than just images and hear more than just dialogue.
Ammonite has been released online in the UK on the 26th of March, so don’t miss the chance to watch it if you can!
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This article was written by:
Reviewer, writer and superstar
Maria is a Romanian art and film lover, with degrees in art history and media. She enjoys volunteering for various film and art events, as well as being a part of vibrant, diverse teams. She has a passion for writing and hopes to turn her passions, interests and actual degrees into a profession.