Sometimes biographies shed new light on once-obscure historical figures – like Mary Anning, a self-taught 19th century paleontologist, renowned for her groundbreaking discoveries of extinct, Jurassic-era marine skeletons.
As portrayed by Kate Winslet, middle-aged Anning is a brusque, working-class misanthrope who has a small shop, selling artifacts to tourists in the dreary British seaside town of Lyme-Regis on the Dorset coast, specializing in the spiral ammonite mollusk fossils she digs out of the steep, rock-strewn cliffs.
Timid Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) is depressed, presumably following the loss of a baby, so her wealthy husband Roderick (James McArdle) pawns her off to austere Anning as an unofficial apprentice during her convalescence. Slowly, a tenuous friendship grows between the two lonely women.
It’s the 1840s, when homosexuality was never openly discussed. And, yes, there’s an explicit love scene, choreographed by Winslet and Ronan under the supervision of minimalist writer/director Francis Lee, whose previous film – God’s Own Country – chronicled a romance between two men on a Yorkshire farm.
“We just felt really safe,” Winslet explains. “I told Francis, who was nervous about it, ‘Let us work it out.’ And we did, starting with the kissing, boobs, you go down there, then you do this, then you climb up here. We marked out the beats of the scene so that we were anchored in something that just supported the narrative. I felt the proudest I’ve ever felt doing a love scene – and, by far, the least self-conscious.”
Winslet goes on: “This is a story about women speaking up, speaking out. I think uncovering stores where women were repressed in such a systematic way is highlighting how history has covered up their successes. We’re not going to do that anymore, world.”
In supporting roles, Gemma Jones plays Anning’s ailing, widowed mother, while Fiona Shaw scores as Anning’s old love interest.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Ammonite is a stark, slow-simmering 6, lacking the spark it needs to make it memorable. Available on DVD and Digital.