Set in 1840s England, Ammonite is based on the paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet). Mary’s excavations contributed greatly to science, yet she struggled financially throughout her life and received little credit. The film focuses on Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), an upper-class housewife who is prescribed rest and sea air to remedy her melancholia. Mary’s work fascinates Charlotte’s husband Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) and he pays Mary to bring Charlotte with her on excavations while he is away.
Mary and Charlotte are strikingly different. Mary is a stoic, working-class woman who became the breadwinner at eleven when her father died. Six of her seven siblings have also passed away. Mary spends her days finding, cleaning, and selling fossils to tourists in order to support her ailing mother (Gemma Jones). Charlotte, on the other hand, is a shadow to her husband (words used by Roderick himself). She dresses elegantly, corset included, and spends a prolonged amount of time wallowing in bed. Nonetheless, the two women become fascinated with each other, not unlike their fascination with the ammonites (cephalopod fossils) they excavate. Their relationship eventually becomes sexual.
Remarkably, the social constructs of the 1800s do not define Mary and Charlotte’s relationship. This is not to say that Ammonite disregards key characteristics of its time period. Rather, the film focuses on the intimate moments between Mary and Charlotte outside the public eye, and the challenges in managing their conflicting identities.
Mary’s stoicism impedes her from accepting a life beyond pure survival. As she spends time with Charlotte, Mary allows herself to enjoy the shores of Lyme Regis instead of view it solely as her workplace. However, Mary cannot shake her traumatic upbringing nor her apprehension to open herself to others. Oppositely, Charlotte clings to the sexual and emotional freedom Mary grants her. She seeks to further intertwine their lives, often without Mary’s consent. Winslet and Ronan express this complex relationship delicately speaking volumes while simply staring at each other.
Francis Lee along with his cast will no doubt receive award recognition for Ammonite. However, there are concerns about the implications of the film surrounding a lesbian relationship while written and directed by a man. Does the movie just a lesbian fantasy? I’d argue there is enough depth to the characters that the film stands without its explicit sex scenes.
But, the film also portrays Mary Anning as a homosexual when there is no real evidence pointing to the paleontologist’s sexuality. Lee cites Ammonite as his interpretation of Mary’s life and relationships. While it is refreshing to see a lesbian romance with such pointed characters, it is also disappointing that Mary Anning will finally gain wide-spread recognition only to be defined by her presumed lesbian love affair.
Ammonite is screening now in theaters and will be available for streaming on December 4.