Visit Lyme Regis today, and the mark of Mary Anning is all over it. Walk past the fossil shops and the tea rooms, the steep roads all leading the beach. You reach the seafront itself, which remains by nature of its design much like it was when Mary Anning, at age 11, found her Ichthyosaur, and later in her life when she sourced and prepared fossils for the local tourist market. And yet, due to erosion that causes regular mudslides, the beach is also shaped differently as the coastline creeps inland. The area is still frequently swarmed with amateur and expert fossil hunters, particularly in the days after a mudslide, each one revealing new secrets, with stones opened to reveal the remnants of the creatures who lived millions of years ago.
Director Francis Lee’s second film, Ammonite, visits Mary (Kate Winslet) as a grown woman, some years after her historic discovery. She is still well known thanks to her prolific find (a complete Ichthyosaur skeleton, the skull of which still resides in the Natural History Museum in London), but as a woman is unable to make any significant life for herself beyond continuing to dig and scramble in the mud for more fossils to clean up and sell to the tourists. She lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), in a small house, with a shop front, living a relatively quiet, working class life.
That changes when she is visited by Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and her husband Roderick (James McArdle), who request that Mary takes Charlotte under her wing to teach and encourage her in the hope she will recover from the melancholia that plagues her. In true Victorian fashion Charlotte is encouraged to take in the sea air, only to fall very ill, and Mary takes it upon herself to nurse her back to health.
As Mary begins to teach Charlotte about fossils they begin to fall in love, and their relationship blooms into something that enriches and endangers them both. There are suggestions that this is not Mary’s first same sex relationship, which we see in the awkward but necessary interactions with Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw) – another fossil hunter and local healer. But this is a love story, so the fossil hunting and care of these beautiful objects is the backdrop to the love story. Unfortunately, while there are some beautifully romantic scenes, there are also some slightly more exploitative ones, seemingly designed to titillate the audience more than give mainstream exposure to same sex relationships. Obviously, the direction Lee has taken to give Mary a female paramour has its critics, but as so many biopics have featured fictional romances, it seems unlikely that this is any more unlikely than her having a male partner. The shame of it is that the film is perhaps a little heavy on the sex rather than the romance.
Mary and Charlotte are both given time to slowly reveal themselves to each other, finding peace together and recovering from their collective traumas. Lee chooses to tell a raw and pared back story here, as the harsh sounds of the sea are rarely softened by the score. Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography naturally lights the characters, the orange glow of the candles giving way to blue sunlight through the haze of seaside drizzle, and brief moments of happiness are brightened by the warm sun of the south coast. These moments of light and dark are reflected in the harshness of the time, as mentions of lost children are peppered throughout the storytelling as though they are something to be expected and tolerated. A simple part of being a married woman, but unlike Charlotte who is allowed to feel her sadness, working class women are not given time to recover before they have to carry on and care for their other children.
Ammonite is not the film to bring Mary Anning to the mainstream, but it is an interesting glimpse at one possible life. A snapshot on the outskirts of 1840s Britain, and a long overdue representation of love between two historical women.
Ammonite is released in US cinemas on November 13 and on PVOD from December 4.