Mary Anning was a woman who was born during the wrong era. Brilliant and determined, she taught herself to be one of the most groundbreaking paleontologists of her time. Living in the small village of Lyme Regis along the English Channel during the mid-19th century, she uncovered some of the most significant and complete fossils of prehistoric creatures on record. Living in poverty for most her life, she was never given the credit that was her due, her accomplishments obscured by those who would buy her finds and display them under their own names. Like so many innovators, her renown grew after her passing, her advances in her chosen field of science ultimately recognized. In addition, it is believed she was the inspiration for the popular tongue-twister, “She sells seashells by the seashore.”
Anning had a fascinating, regrettably overlooked life, and I wish it had been explored a bit more in Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a movie that becomes more dubious the further I reflect upon it. Focusing on a small window in the scientist’s life, the film has little new to say regarding the way women were marginalized during this era, while its pace, akin to an archeological dig, doesn’t do it any favors. That the two sex scenes between the two leads is getting a lot of press comes as no surprise due to their graphic nature and the fame of the stars that participate in them. That Lee invests a great deal of attention and focuses on these two sequences suggests that perhaps the rest of the movie was simply an excuse for this pair of moments.
Anning (Kate Winslet) is barely holding it together. Caring for her ailing mother (Gemma Jones), they are both still reeling from the death of her father. Eking out a living by selling fossils she’s found nearby, she’s in no position to turn down a proposition from Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a hobbyist who is visiting Lyme Regis with his ailing wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Emotionally despondent due to a recent miscarriage, the young woman has been advised to bathe in frigid waters at the village’s edge, a restorative method that’s anything but. Roderick is eager to go out on an expedition on his own, is convinced his wife will only slow him down, and so proposes that she stay with Anning for a month to “recover.” A handsome stipend is offered and an arrangement is made.
Though Anning is reluctant, a relationship develops between these two women, one born out of loneliness that ultimately becomes emotionally and sexually intimate. Both having been marginalized, each woman craves any sort of validation and while the pair is reluctant at first to proffer this, they each eventually blossom, thanks to the attention of the other. Winslet gives a reserved, coiled performance as Anning, a woman who has retreated within after being ignored and ill-used by the patriarchal society she’s doomed to exist in. The actress allows the very hints of want and desire to come through her stoic demeanor, just enough to let the viewer know that a glimmer of passion still exists behind her steely gaze. Ronan is equally fine, though she’s required to take another approach as her Charlotte has not been as battered yet, her youth still radiant, her hope more obvious.
That there is little basis in fact to the particulars of this relationship is of little concern to Lee. His theme is obvious and the titillation seems present just to draw our gaze. Credit Winslet and Ronan for bringing what little humanity there is in this stony Ammonite.