▶︎ Ammonite closes the BFI London Film Festival, which runs from 7-18 October.

Palaeontologists have tended to be imagined by filmmakers as action heroes (Sam Neill in Jurassic Park) or stuffy scientists offered up for laughs (Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby, Ross from Friends). Francis Lee’s remarkable new film Ammonite excavates a very different fossil hunter: Mary Anning, a real-life 19th-century palaeontologist, played here, often covered in mud, by Kate Winslet. The second feature from the director of God’s Own Country (2017) bears many similarities with his striking debut: it’s an intimate character study about a solitary, withdrawn figure embarking on a tender romance, told with meticulous attention to realism.

Winslet has played many headstrong characters in the past but none as gruff, wary and introverted as she makes Anning. Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte Murchison, a sickly upper-class woman abandoned by her husband to Anning’s care in Lyme Regis, tempts Anning out of her shell and is herself transformed in the process. The chemistry between the pair as their tentative relationship flourishes is a joy to watch. Winslet’s Anning, Lee tells me on the phone from his remote home in rural Yorkshire, is much like the mollusc of the film’s title: “They both have a hard shell around themselves to protect their very vulnerable centre.”

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Francis Lee directing Ammonite (2020)

After God’s Own Country, which touched on raw Brexit-era issues in the UK, such as immigration, Lee had no intentions of delving into the UK’s past. “I never thought I would make a period film,” he admits. “There’s a set way in which period films are made, particularly British period films: the Austen and Forster adaptations, or the Merchant Ivory films. Although I enjoy them, they wouldn’t be films I would ever make because they’re about representing the past in a very glossy way. Often period films are not about the ordinary person’s experience in that period, they’re about the upper classes or the middle classes… That’s not really my vibe.”

Lee had never heard of Anning but stumbled across her online when he was researching rocks to buy as a present for his ex-boyfriend. “Instantly, she struck a chord with me. She was born into poverty and, despite having no education, no privilege in her life whatsoever, she rose to be the leading expert in her field throughout her lifetime – but was ignored by a totally patriarchal, class-ridden society. Mary primarily did it to earn money, to put food on the table, to survive. And I’m really drawn to survivors.

“I was also drawn to her because there was virtually nothing written about her by contemporaries beyond her discoveries; there’s nothing about her personal life. I found two descriptions of her by contemporaries. One described her as lovely and warm and [that she] liked children. And the other one described her as a grumpy, difficult woman whose shop was dirty. And that was it.”

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Winslet as Mary Anning

Anning was unconventional in other intriguing ways too. “There is no evidence whatsoever that she ever had a relationship with a man,” Lee says. “But there is evidence she had close friendships with women.”

He points to research about women and female same-sex relationships in the 18th and 19th centuries. “There was so much evidence of letters written by women to other women about deep, passionate loving relationships that were totally underground. At the time, society believed women had no sexual pleasure organs so the idea of two women being together was just not even thought about.”

Lee felt it important to cast an English actor in her forties, both to reflect Anning’s age accurately at the time the events are set and to bring an understanding of the country’s class dynamics. Winslet, he says, was on board as soon as she read the script, and committed to Lee’s very physical and lengthy way of working, spending four months before the shoot building the character.

“Kate, as an actor, has no vanity,” Lee says. “She went out and fossilled on those beaches in Lyme Regis for weeks and weeks and really learned how to do it all. She climbed those cliffs and got dirty, wet, tired and achy. She just threw herself into all of that.”

Ronan, Lee says, brings to Charlotte the ability to transform from “a doll into a fully grown, empowered woman” – and was equally game, though her role required less physical grit and more needlework and piano practice.

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Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison with Winslet in Ammonite

Lee eschews improvisation, seeing extensive preparation rather as a way of enabling those involved to understand “how did they become these people in this script?”

Winslet, he says, was adamant that Mary’s motivations and conditions should be clear at all times. “Yes, she can be unlikeable, but why is she unlikeable? We have to understand that’s coming from a place of insecurity. Kate was brilliant at safeguarding that.”

He continues: “The wonderful thing about her performance is her stillness and how she portrays all these internalised emotions. We worked very, very hard on those things, because they are very different from who Kate is, and the characters she’s played before.”