This highly original biopic of a little-known woman scientist highlights the obscurity in which women of renown nevertheless hid in plain sight. Ammonite, set in the coastal village of Lyme Regis, in 1840s England, chronicles the intense relationship between the acclaimed but overlooked fossil hunter and paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and a young affluent woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Their friendship transforms both of their lives.
Charlotte Murchison visits Mary Anning’s fossil shop with her dilettante husband, Roderick (James McArdle), who wishes to observe Mary discovering the fossils that have made her well-known at the British Museum yet paradoxically unknown. Charlotte is supposed to convalesce by the sea while her husband seeks Mary’s know-how and ostensibly hopes to elevate his reputation without attribution to Mary’s tutelage.
Living a solitary and deeply lonely existence with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones), who plays with nine ceramic figurines symbolizing the deceased children, Mary is not interested at all in Roderick’s offer to pay generously for a “tour” of her fossil sites. Reluctantly, at her mother’s urging, she obliges his request.
Mary silently and coldly witnesses how Roderick treats his wife more roughly than he would the delicate care required for revealing the beauty of a fossil. As a talented paleontologist who discovers what lies beneath the surface, Mary has little use for either of them.
Disenchanted with his beautiful young wife “who used to shine and dazzle”, Roderick abandons her while he continues his explorations abroad. In the interim, we see Anning slowly uncover the intrinsic beauty of Charlotte.
The grey of Ammonite’s cinematography, underscoring the depressing and cold isolation of both Mary and Charlotte, is sharply contrasted to the color in the scenes of their friendship and intimacy. Both actors’ faces convey the inner conflict and almost unbearable loneliness in one exquisitely graceful scene after the next. Nothing is forced or manufactured and both Winslet and Ronan are evenly matched, seasoned performers whose intelligent decisions never misfire. Both characters, at times, seem to be screaming for help from the bottom of a well. Viewers first see the two women detached and wounded, their icy cold veneers slowly warming and cracking, revealing buried vulnerability needing to be excavated.
There’s so much grace and nuance in these two actors’ performance with remarkably little dialogue and no narration. Individual, wordless moments that express both an understated delight and the devastating knowledge that it may not last are superimposed upon an extraordinarily palpable chemistry between Ronan and Winslet.
Highly recommended, especially for fans of historical drama, biopics, and women’s history.
Note: Anning was a genuine legend in her own time. Her fossil shop is now the Lyme Regis Museum. For an interesting article on the historical accuracy of her life and the film’s interpretation of her friendship with Murchison, see the March 20, 2019 article in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/20/mary-anning-lesbian-palaeontologist-women-film