We’ve been trying to define what love is for as long as human consciousness has existed. The rhythm of it: Is it a journey of extremes, or a plateau of steadiness? The feeling of it: Is it the charged emotion of a shared glance, or the pleasant familiarity of amiable silence? And the loss of it: Does falling out of love happen all at once, or slowly over time? What brings us together, and what tears us apart? How much individuality do we give away every time we let someone into the privacy and intimacy of ourselves?
Francis Lee’s filmography, in particular the 2017 classic God’s Own Country, has centered the probing of these questions about what makes us, and what makes us love, and he provides the same frame to Ammonite. In Ammonite, a fictional take on the life of self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning, Lee builds an environment of solitude, bleakness, and submission. The atmosphere is, literally and figuratively, grey; you feel the chill of the air slowly working its way into your bones; you’re unnerved by the wild desolation. There is a sense that time has forgotten this place and forgotten these people, and there is a futility here—an impossibility to wanting anything for yourself, because you’re probably not going to get it.
In the small town of Lyme Regis along England’s southern coast, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) scrapes a life together. She has been discovering fossils in Lyme Regis’s muddy, sandy, dangerous cliffs for years, and they’ve sustained her family, now whittled down to just her widowed mother. She and her mother both work at the shop where Mary sells her found treasures, and they live together in a small rented home, and every day is the same. Get up. Scour the gusty, foggy beaches for anything that fits Mary’s precise description of what could be a fossil; all she needs is one look to spot a rock or an unusual formation in the cliff. Return home for an egg for breakfast, eaten in silence with her mother. Go back out. Go to the store. Come home for meager vegetable soup. Ignore all attempts by fellow townspeople at conversation or social activity. Mary is putting forth some of the greatest discoveries of the time, but has never been allowed entry into the patriarchal world of explorers and archeologists and paleontologists and adventurers. She is used to selling her found items for a measly price, and knowing that whichever man buys them puts his name over hers on the fossil’s tag, further erasing her from memory.
It is a life Mary has seemed to accept for herself, as unfulfilling as it is. Everything changes, though, when aspiring paleontologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) arrives in town with his wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Roderick praises Mary’s work, and asks for her guidance and her assistance in his own learning, and when he needs to travel to the rest of Europe for his continued explorations, he asks Mary to look after Charlotte. That won’t be hard, will it? No matter that the women are of entirely different social classes, or are separated by decades in age, or that Charlotte is clearly grieving a great loss, or that Mary has no interest in anything outside of her work. Roderick just assumes that two women should get along, and that Mary—without a husband or children of her own—will be fine with taking care of an absolute stranger for at least two months. “It is a woman’s position to care for a fellow sister, is it not?” asks Lyme’s town doctor when Mary expresses concern about being responsible for Charlotte, and yes, duh, he’s a man.
The casual patriarchy of that mentality, of course, is what has given shape to Mary and Charlotte’s whole lives. They both know what it’s like to be limited, undervalued, and dismissed. Charlotte, by her husband, who resents her “mild melancholia” and wants his “bright, funny, clever wife back.” Mary, whose discoveries have helped expand the realm of scientific knowledge and yet who has never received any credit for it. And so what is at first a bristling, uncomfortable relationship forced upon them slowly, and then suddenly, transforms into something else. When I tell you that Ammonite has some of the most go-for-it sex scenes I’ve seen in a while, whew. I am not exaggerating!
The beauty of Ammonite is in the details that show us the protective walls these women have built for themselves, and how their companionship chips away at that security, bit by bit, until a certain sense of raw neediness is revealed. Lee has a lovely way of focusing on the women’s hands as demonstrations of their devotion: how Charlotte digs into the muddy, slippery sand of a cliff face to encourage Mary to go after a specific fossil; the way Mary’s fingers splay wide open, grasping at the boning of Charlotte’s corset, during their first embrace. Winslet and Ronan are both solid here, the former a statue of self-possession and the latter the most girlish she’s ever been. Winslet is effectively closed-off from Charlotte at first, her only interaction with the younger woman the shadiest of side eyes. But her transition from disinterest to adoration is almost Austenian in how rapidly, and then all-consumingly, it takes hold. Ronan, meanwhile, pulls off a combination of austere innocence and fiery sexual desire that is so different from her other work so far that I am once again amazed by the endless shades of her ability. They well capture the magnetic draw between two people who recognize in each other a trapped spirit, and who are determined to help shake the other free.
But is that kind of relationship sustainable? Can you fuck someone into becoming a different person? Those are the questions Ammonite is asking alongside its presentation of this affair, and those considerations tip the film into something more tragic than romantic, and into an exploration of what we project onto other people in our anguish and our loneliness. “If you think I’m strong enough,” Charlotte says to Mary when she’s on the mend from an illness; “Do you think you’re strong enough?” is Mary’s reply to the younger woman, and Ammonite is about the space between those two statements: in the gap between who we think we are and how others view us, and the trust and importance we put in each. Maybe that’s love. Ammonite leaves the answer up to you.
Ammonite is playing in select theaters beginning November 13. It hits premium video on demand on December 4.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review of a theatrical release is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. This film was reviewed via a screening link.
Image sources (in order of posting): Neon, Neon