Kate Winslet delivers a quiet but powerful performance as fossil hunter Mary Anning in Francis Lee’s Ammonite.
The opening scene shows a woman scrubbing the floor of a London gallery, briskly pushed aside as scientists—obviously all male—step through her space to place the fossilized skull of an Ichthyosaurus in its museum case. A close-up shows the rough removal of a name card crediting the discovery to Miss Mary Anning, setting the tone for a time in which the accomplishments of women aren’t given any notice.
Lee (God’s Own Country) introduces us to the sturdy Anning (Winslet), a real-life fossil collector and dealer in southwest England whose discoveries from the seaside mud wall made her name well-known amid the Geographical Society Of London—an organization that denied her membership and credit for her discoveries throughout her lifetime. The isolated Mary meets Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), an ill young woman prescribed sea air, who finds herself abandoned by her husband into Mary’s care. A relationship grows between the two women as they find comfort in one another amid their struggle to find their footing in a man’s world.
No doubt likely to draw comparisons to Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, Winslet and Ronan do not have the potent sexual chemistry of the French film’s leads but that’s not what Ammonite calls for.
Beautifully set amid grey skies and windy beaches, Winslet’s Mary is a woman of few words. Instead, she conveys everything through her face—whether she’s on the verge of tears of distress and desire or barley registering the presence of men attempting to shake her hand as she works on her fossils. The characterization of Mary and Charlotte is utterly believable: one woman is measured in her desire and the other the instigator in their illicit romance.
With a raw depiction of female sexuality that would make even James Ivory blush, Lee manages to avoid sentimentality and melodrama in this fascinating and erotic story of two slow-moving yet mesmerizing opposites who inevitably converge one rapturous moment.
Ammonite opens in theatres in November.