No one would confuse the 19th-century romance Ammonite – a type of rare fossil — with dynamite. It’s the type of slow-building period piece that allows a character to reveal she is gravely ill by coughing into a hanky and then showing us it is spattered in blood. It also takes it time to simmer to a full-on boil emotion-wise while eventually heading to a tsunami of bodice-ripping lady love. Speaking of the weather, there is water, water everywhere in the form of crashing waves, rain storms and tears.
The good news is that two of the best and most watchable actresses of our time – Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan – play characters based on two real-life British women who were both drawn to the science of paleontology. Winslet’s Mary Anning became famous for finding rare fossils along the English Channel at Lyme Regis, where the ocean waves batter the shores. As for Ronan, she plays the younger Charlotte Murchison who worked with her geologist husband, Roderick Murchison.
It’s true that the two women did become friends and fellow fossil hunters when the Murchinsons visited Mary. But writer-director Francis Lee takes that relationship a bit farther on the big screen by suggesting the two women had a love affair together. Does the script deserve the liberties it takes? Mostly, yes. In his telling, Charlotte fell ill and her husband paid Anning to take care of his wife so he could continue on with his sojourn in Europe. Initially, the two women from two generations couldn’t be more different. The older Mary is taciturn and focused on making a livelihood out of selling her finds from the beach.
As for the frail but more light-hearted Charlotte, there’s a hint that she might have lost a baby at some point. But an effort to wade into the rough surf causes her to develop a fever. Mary decides to dedicate herself to making sure her patient is well cared for. She’s even willing to spend money on a salve to bring down her fever. She also sacrifices her own bed and sleeps in a chair to allow her visitor to recover. But soon after, the pair start sharing the bed and matters warm up considerably.
From there, affection grows between them, while the more sociable Charlotte gets to know some of the citizens in the town thanks to a musical gathering arranged by the handsome doctor who treated her. She also helps Mary find valuable rock forms while occasionally playing an old piano in the house. Eventually, one thing leads to another and the bosom buddies consummate their relationship.
Lee capitalizes on the weather conditions in the village a great deal, rather than focus on meaningful dialogue. Two other cast members do make a lingering impression. The wonderful Fiona Shaw, whose garden provides the salve that helps Charlotte, tries to pry open Mary’s thoughts about her visitor. It seems that the two women almost became a couple previously.
Then there is Gemma Jones as Mary’s sickly mom. We learn she birthed 10 children and eight of them died. To commemorate them, she tends to a flock of ceramic animals on a regular basis. Of all the moments in Ammonite, this above all has lingered on my mind.