Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country was one of the most powerful film debuts of recent years – a visceral, unflinching exploration of rural life that would have had James Herriot hiding behind the sofa. For his sophomore effort, Lee has changed the era and the mood, taking us to Lyme Regis in the eighteen hundreds, where fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) plies her trade, selling the smaller pieces she finds on her daily visits to the seashore to holidaymakers. The larger pieces are sold to her male colleagues, who then blatantly take the credit for discovering them. Mary is all too aware of this and, as a result, she’s become a prickly and insular character, a quality that comes across as cantankerous to strangers.
Mary is approached by celebrated palaeontologist Roderick Murchison (James McCardle), who wants to learn from her. He brings with him his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is mourning a recent miscarriage and is quite unable to pull herself out of her melancholy. When Murchison is obliged to move on, he leaves Charlotte with Mary for a few weeks, hoping that working alongside the older woman will help her to recover. Mary is at first horrified at the idea – she values her privacy. But Murchison is wealthy and willing to pay for his wife’s internship – and Mary needs the money.
When Charlotte falls ill with a fever, Mary is obliged to nurse her – and, as the days unfold, the two women manage to breach the wall that has kept them apart – and start to realise they are falling in love…
Mary Anning was, of course, a real person, and very little is known about the reality of her personal life. Lee (who also wrote the screenplay) has been heavily criticised for portraying her as a lesbian, accused of taking liberties with the ‘truth’ about her – though I’m willing to bet that, if the film had featured a fictional heterosexual relationship, nobody would have turned a hair. But, having read up on her, it’s impressive to note how much of the story sticks closely to what we do know about the real Mary Anning. What’s most important here is that, because of her gender, she was discriminated against on a daily basis – even though it is now widely accepted that she was one of the most knowledgable people in her field. Like so many Victorian women, she was a victim of the patriarchy, robbed of the credit for so much of what she achieved.
Winslet is simply terrific in the central role, conveying Anning’s awkwardness and inner turmoil in the stolid set of her shoulders, the furtive glances that seem constantly to be seeking escape. She is a misfit, struggling to survive in a world she’s not cut out for. Ronan too, is completely believable as a young woman searching for consolation after an overwhelming loss – and finding it in an unexpected love affair. Shot in what looks like genuinely horrible weather conditions, Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography captures the bleak, rugged beauty of Dorset and this is echoed by a sumptuous score courtesy of Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran. If that’s not enough to entice you, there’s also a lovely cameo performance from Fiona Shaw as Mary’s old flame, Elizabeth.
Ammonite may not have the immediate impact of God’s Own Country, but it’s an exquisitely handled film with an absorbing tale to tell. Lee’s central premise seems to be about the trophies we collect in life, from fossilised remains in glass cases to the lives of those who follow us through the twists and turns of history. It’s well worth your attention.