One of the final films for this year’s London Film Festival comes in the form of Francis Lee’s Ammonite. Written and directed by Lee, the film follows Victorian palaeontologist Mary Anning and her time spent with Charlotte Murchison who would eventually become a palaeontologist herself. Starring Oscar winner Kate Winslet and Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan as Anning and Murchison, respectively, Ammonite is a slow burning romance filled with beautiful cinematography and boasting a host of stellar performances. It premiered at Toronto Film Festival and was one of the most talked about films coming into London Film Festival so I was excited to have a chance to watch it.
Shot on location at the Jurassic Coast at Lyme Regis, Ammonite is just as hard and cold as its surroundings with Anning’s character specifically being chipped away at like one her fossils until we see her true self revealed. Francis Lee brings in a unique perspective by adding in a lesbian storyline due to Anning’s privacy regarding her personal life and with the knowledge that she never married or had children. There is no proof to say she was a lesbian but there isn’t any proof to say otherwise and the film hasn’t been written as confirmed history. What is fact, however, is that Anning’s life was full of injustices. From the offset, Anning’s injustices are seen as the fossil she uncovered is placed in the British Museum and her name is replaced by a man’s. This happens before we even see her onscreen. Our introduction to Anning is quite literally the science community erasing women from the narrative.
As expected, Kate Winslet is perfect casting as Mary Anning. Stubborn and guarded, Anning sees through the grandeur and spectacle of the male dominated science community. Bringing her best performance in years, Winslet’s Anning longs for happiness but shuts herself away from it, deciding to focus on her work. Even when she initially meets Roderick and Charlotte Murchison, she is reluctant and unhappy to give them a private audience as she prefers her own company. However, we see her facade fade away as she nurses Charlotte back to health after she contracts a fever. Anning longs to be among the elite in society but knows that she never will. Charlotte has everything she wants and even when presented with the opportunity to join her, Anning doesn’t want to be in a submissive position. Winslet plays Anning with strength and resilience that both aids and damages the character.
Saoirse Ronan’s performance as Charlotte Murchison puts her back in the familiar period setting that she excels in. Murchison is consumed by mental illness following the loss of her baby and is sent to shadow Anning at the insistence of her husband who goes travelling for five months. She is timid and quiet and quickly clashes with Anning’s brash character. After falling ill, Charlotte has a new outlook on life and grows attached Mary which slowly blossoms into a romance between them. As the film’s focus is mainly on Anning, I would say Ronan doesn’t shine as much as Winslet because we don’t get to know Charlotte to the same extent. I would have loved to have seen a more developed character arc for her or perhaps a note at the end of the film to confirm her own successful career as a palaeontologist. Ronan does the best with the material she has, however, and is a great onscreen match with Winslet. It’s hard to believe that it has taken so long to have these two powerhouses acting alongside each other.
The costume design by Michael O’Connor is a highlight in the film, particularly the handmade knit pieces the two leads wear. Anning’s weave and rib knit jumper is a beautiful and practical piece that has the robustness to reflect her profession and personality. On the other hand, Murchison’s delicate white knitted shawl is so fragile it could be lace. It is so fresh and clean which contrasts with the mud laden beach. Anning’s clothes are predominantly dark greys and blues and reflect the bleak coastal scenery with Murchison’s more bright and lavish outfits commanding the centre of attention in all of her scenes.
Overall, Ammonite shows Francis Lee’s skill with colour and vision, giving a voice to an overlooked woman in science. His boldness and imagination to suggest a different narrative doesn’t take away from Anning’s confirmed achievements. Lee has cemented himself as a director to watch with this strong follow-up to his 2017 debut, God’s Own Country.
Ammonite is screening at the London Film Festival on the 17th October and will be released in the United Kingdom in 2021.