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Francis Lee’s follow-up to his first film, God’s Own Country (2017), is a story similarly entrenched in the wild beauty and weatherbeaten roughness of British landscape, where the interpersonal hardness reflects a tough environment and economic scarcity. The first sound to hit the senses is of hard graft: the film reveals a woman on her knees, scrubbing tiles, over which a procession of gentlemen trample as they rush to admire the British Museum’s latest acquisition – one of Mary Anning’s ‘sea lizards’.
Like Lee’s debut, Ammonite is fiercely sensorial. Johnnie Burn’s sound design wraps the protagonists’ world in the unrelenting coastal winds and crashing white water that drags through the shore’s shingle. The thick slippery clay of Lyme Regis’s cliffs replaces the mud of the Yorkshire Dales, but the blood, urine and spit continue to flow. This time around, though, the shit is fossilised, as protagonist Mary Anning bluntly informs hopeful novice fossil-hunter Mr Murchison.
Kate Winslet serves up dour-faced, cold pragmatism in her role as the renowned palaeontologist and fossil-collector Mary Anning. Ammonite imagines a romance for a woman whose love life remains a mystery. When Mr Murchison heads abroad, leaving his fragile wife Charlotte to heal from an ambiguous trauma, Mary grudgingly agrees to let her trail along on her beach excursions: “Looks to be fuck-all wrong with you to me,” she mutters to herself.
While Mary has become hardened to solitude, Charlotte fears being left alone. As in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the duo is tasked with melting the hardened ways of the other, but the intense connection and all-consuming love is largely concealed here. That’s not to say that when the relationship becomes sexual it’s not as powerful – Lee excels in the expression of carnal desire – but Mary is a tough nut to crack.
In a rare expressive moment, Mary is moved to begin sketching the silhouette of Charlotte’s resting body, and another period romance loosely based in historical fact is called to mind – Kate Winslet’s cross-class flirtation in Titanic: “Jack, I want you to draw me like one of your French girls.” But with her frosty, taciturn stoicism, Winslet’s character is more thundering iceberg in this forbidden romance, and instead of a lavish ocean liner, it’s a cold draughty house in Dorset.
The Annings’ reticence suggests the guardedness that comes with a hard life.
God’s Own Country co-star Alec Secareanu returns as Dr Lieberson, a new medic in town, who develops feelings for Mary and, as in that earlier role, is met with suspicion. Lee taps into the barbed mistrust that characterises small-town life, surfacing in the wide-eyed horror of Mary’s mother Molly as she detects the unmistakable lilt of an overseas accent.
Gemma Jones – another actor from God’s Own Country – repeats her role as a reticent, grumpy mother figure who has led a hard life. Again, she watches her child with silent disapproval – initially, the wordless nature of Mary and Molly’s relationship leaves it unclear who this cohabiting character is. The lack of warmth and intimacy is palpable. “Mary!” she shrieks from another room in the house, demanding her daughter’s undivided attention, and evoking the co-dependent bond of the two Edie Beales in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.
The Annings’ reticence suggests the guardedness that comes with a hard life. Mary’s family is working-class, her mother sickly, her father dead. The economic burden is on Mary’s shoulders, and on top of that she’s not welcomed into their boys’ club by geologists who can afford to indulge as a hobby what for her is a livelihood. Mary builds up Charlotte’s confidence, in a world where men automatically make decisions for her.
Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte is pallid and timid and, with her manners and finery, from a different world. Yet in turn they bring each other out of their shells, a risk perhaps communicated with strongest clarity in Stephane Fontaine’s poetic cinematography: a magpie on the damp grey promenade, holding a snail shell in its beak. Like ammonites, the spiral symbolises life; this shell is a bit broken but has been seen in a different light, a thing of value to another living creature.
“I’m drawn to survivors”: Francis Lee on Ammonite
By Isabel Stevens
Film of the week: God’s Own Country unites males in the Dales
By Alex Davidson
“Cinema is my happy place”: Francis Lee celebrates cinemas as community spaces
By Francis Lee
Portraits of young women on fire: Céline Sciamma on female art, identity and intimacy
By Leigh Singer
Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy