With his stunning 2017 debut feature God’s Own Country, writer/director Francis Lee created complex gay and working class characters and put them front and center. His follow up, the romantic, historical drama Ammonite starring Kate Winslet as real-life, self-taught British paleontologist Mary Anning who lived and worked on the coast of England in the 1840s, does the same for women straightjacketed by both gender and class.
The movie opens with a scrubwoman on her knees who’s brusquely told by a male voice to get out of the way. A table is being carried across her clean, museum floor, a subtle metaphor for Mary’s life and career. The table holds a large fossil, but a card bearing the name of its discoverer, Mary Anning, is promptly discarded in favor of the name of the man who purchased and bequeathed the fossil. Ammonite unfolds into a naturalistic, atmospheric drama about the erasure of working class women, lesbians and queer people in general from history which Lee has said is a prime motivator for the films he creates.
Mary combs the shore in the wind and cold looking for fossils that her elderly mother (Gemma Jones, excellent) sells to tourists in their little shop where they also live, in dimly lit, bare bones rooms. Light enters in the form of Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), the young, upper class woman who first visits the shop with her husband, an arrogant fossil hunter who begs Mary to share some of her vast knowledge with him. Soon, he’s left his fragile wife in Mary’s reluctant care. Gradually, the women bond as Charlotte recovers and soon becomes fascinated by Mary’s work digging up fossils. She learns that Mary from childhood has sold important discoveries to museums in order to help support her family; scientific recognition is a luxury denied to a poor woman without formal education. Charlotte recognizes and is drawn to Mary’s individuality and intelligence. It sparks her own desires and they fall intensely in love. Charlotte frees Mary from her calcification.
Besides beautifully nuanced performances from Ronan and, especially, Winslet who gives us a nearing-middle-age woman hardened by poverty and heartbreak — the great Fiona Shaw as Mary’s former lover brings more complexity to just a few scenes than most actors in an entire film—who does not expect to find love or fulfillment. The film creates an atmosphere to match her interior world. Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine subtly shifts from grays and candlelight to brighter, warmer tones once Charlotte enters Mary’s room and life, bringing her youth, openness and love into that bleak space, at least for a while.