' ' Cinema Romantico: Ammonite

Tuesday, February 09, 2021


“Ammonite” is about Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a famed palaeontologist uncelebrated in her own lifetime, not least because she was a woman. Director Francis Lee, however, refrains from making anything like a conventional biopic, eschewing a delivery device for dates and facts to instead create a character study chiseled predominantly out of aesthetic and landscape and mood. That might leave you with questions about exactly what Mary does, what rendered her place in history, what that title even means, but this feels less frustratingly unintentional or deliberately vague than part and parcel to Mary Amming herself, a ferociously guarded person rendered mistrustful, as we see in an early scene with a self-impressed dude, by men who consider themselves her equal simply by being men. That Winslet holds us at a distance only brings Mary to fuller life. 

Mary gets by hunting for fossils on cold rocky British beaches and selling them to tourists out of a seasalt stained shop doubling as the home where she lives with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones). Mom’s days are numbered, seen hacking up blood. Yet, in suggesting the apple does not fall far from the tree, she keeps this condition secret, though in one remarkable moment when she coughs, the way Winslet has Mary suddenly look to the right and hold and narrow her gaze quietly communicates that she may well know what’s up anyway. It is evocative of how Winslet, playing a character of few words, packs so much into the most minimal of body language, calcifying or softening her entire deportment on cue, manipulating her emotional body temperature to convey hot or cool. And when one of Mary’s buyers leaves his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s stead while he’s away, paying for this sort of spousal boarding, Winslet hardly lets her character conceal disgust. Still, if Mary and Charlotte do not get off on the right foot, an attraction blooms, with “Ammonite” proving less interested in societal restrictions than emotional ones, especially Mary’s, her affection has hard to excavate as some long buried relic. 

As Charlotte, Ronan does a virtual 180 from her turn as “Little Women’s” Jo, trading in that vigorous spirit for something more akin to a deer in the headlights, her wide eyes juxtaposed against Winslet’s brittleness. Though Mary clearly needs the money, Winslet initially plays the part as if Charlotte is dead weight, and she may as well be when Mary directs Charlotte to go swim at the beach, causing her to fall ill. It is not, however, Mary nursing her young charge back to health that causes romance to bloom so much as afterwards when Charlotte figuratively rolls up her sleeves to meet Mary on her terms by helping her literally dig up a fossil in the dirt, epitomizing how so much of “Ammonite” is inextricably tied to both climate and work.

Not for nothing does Lee open in his film not with an image of Mary’s ichthyosaur skeleton being rushed into the British Museum of Natural History, though that shot quickly follows, but a woman scrubbing the floor as the ichthyosaur skeleton is rushed into the British Museum of Natural History, bumping into her along the way, as if she is not even there, putting into focus both a woman’s place in this world and the toil of labor. Mary’s world is consistently overcast, the pall of the skies in harmony with her attitude, and a brief visit to the country home of a former lover, Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), that briefly injects “Ammonite” with a rush of color feels otherworldly. Lee indulges in several close-ups over Mary’s callused hands and, before the movie fades in, lingers on the sounds of the sponge being wrung out, over and over, almost as if aroused by life’s grim verisimilitude. The sex scenes between Mary and Charlotte, though, while forgoing any soft-eyed romance are nevertheless romantic in their own way; raw, physical passion. 

Winslet had something of a tough twenty-tens, starring in several movies that might be described as less than good. Still, she was often good in them, finding something to play to, though she never had something to play to at the level she does in “Ammonite.” She is so good, in fact, that it is painful when Lee occasionally drifts from the elemental nature of his filmmaking to overtly push metaphors, such as having Mary explain aloud that she is like a fossil trapped under glass. There is no need to say it aloud. If you have been watching Winslet, she has already rendered that comparison clear as day. 

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