Ammonite ★★★½

Ammonite has the misfortune of being released by the same studio as the fan favorite lesbian drama, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. And in having many similarities with it, such as the period setting and the coastal setting, just a few months after most finally got the chance to see Portrait (my favorite film of last year). The ways in which it is dissimilar is likely to leave people cold, particularly since this one features two beloved actresses (Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) and a lengthy sex scene between them, frenzied passion done with last chance physicality as opposed to being filmed like general movie lovemaking, that might shock some of their fans. The similarities involve a young woman being brought to an island for health purposes, eventually desiring her host, and the ticking clock of her return to her husband working against their newfound freedom. But Ammonite is so tonally different that the comparisons should cease; everything that is rightfully beloved about Portrait doesn't register here, as there are entirely different avenues being explored, performance-wise and in direction. This type of story can contain multitudes in ways to tell it and the two films very much prove that.

Having loved Francis Lee's debut film, God's Own Country, there's a very similar approach he takes here: focusing on the hardships of the land, the work, and how years of hardships in emotional isolation make it impossible to communicate desire properly. Indeed the story structure is nearly a carbon copy (so too is the physical act of sex present in both to mutual completion; the gender and era are the primary differences). There are not moments in Ammonite that make your heart soar and neither do they make your heart sore. What Ammonite has in its bones instead is a sorrow for lost time. Sorrow for Winslet's tireless work which has isolated her heart but also relegated her achievements to the personal instead of worldly. Winslet's Mary Anning is an important paleontologist, who began at the age of 12 by digging for fossils in the channel. Her years and years of merciless toil of digging along the windswept cliffs would grant her importance in studies of extinction, however she was never allowed to join any of the scientific societies due to her gender, and she spent her last few years penniless with just a fossil shop to her name.

It is here that I must confess that I do not know Mary Anning, as many viewing the film probably do not either, and the more I look up about her the more fascinating her work is. Ronan as well plays a real woman, Charlotte Murchison, whose husband had an interest in science and Anning's work and did bring her with him in an attempt to study with her but instead left his wife in her care to pursue other studies within the manlier part of the scientific wing. Murchison had more access to the scientific community through her husband than Anning did through her actual scientific work and Murchison achieved some scientific society fame through her drawings. Murchison and Anning have an established historical friendship and Anning did have a room in her house. However, there is no record of them having a sexual relationship or Anning having any relationships at all.

I am sure there will be historical handwringing over Ammonite but I can only comment on the movie that Lee has made because all that extra info above was just me researching after the fact. And the film that is made is one that I took a strong liking toward. Rather than diving into the structural moments of application and denial into scientific society based on gender, Ammonite begins with her literal erasure. Man move in a purchased sea lizard skull to be displayed in a fancy house. We hear the men grunt and struggle with the display. With it comes signage of the species and Mary's name for its discovery and assemblage. The men in charge remove that signage and add their own, the latin name Ichthyosaurus replaces her "sea lizard" and the male owner of the fossil replaces her name because he'd purchased it. Minutes later we observe her manual labor in juxtaposition with the stately display of her work, shrouded in gray, beaten by the wind. And this is the type of film that Ammonite is: elemental. There will be no dialogue that lays out specific ills with the scientific community, no declarations of love during the affair. Lee chooses to make a scientific film not about the science itself but of the biology in society interactions. Each glance, each look away, each observation from Winslet is reflective of the objectivity of the cinematic medium. Even the sex scenes are more biological than they are steamy.

With Ronan, Lee is able to look into class as well, though again, not explicitly. Her stature in marriage juxtaposes with the Anning family fossil shop and so too does her choice toward the end of the film. Her dismissal of the maid, her attempt to surprise showing more of an idea of ownership, and Winslet's Anning an awareness that her work is something to be bought and displayed.

I can definitely understand any misgivings toward Ammonite for historical and romantic shortcomings. In regards to aching and longing, Ammonite is lacking. However, for myself, just as an observer of two actors and the emergence of a uniquely patient filmmaker who ascribes to the decree full stop of show don't tell, I found Ammonite to be a very good biological achievement on film. It did not move me or make me weep, but this woman's story isn't made here for tragedy and tears. It's made for the observance of physical and (unexpressed) emotional toil. The harshness of work essentially renders the heart to a fossilized state, but some dust can still be rubbed away. In that regard, Lee does a great job and so too do Winslet and Ronan.

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