Peanuts creator Charles Schulz injected “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown” (1966) with downtrodden Charlie repeating the line, “I got a rock” after each house on the trick or treat trail. It was funny because no one would rather have a rock than candy, right? Well, maybe no one except Mary Anning, the 19th-century English fossil collector, and paleontologist whose story is at the core of writer-director Francis Lee’s (God’s Own Country, 2017) new film Ammonite, which has received some backlash due to the fictionalized approach it takes with her personal life.
Oscar-winner Kate Winslet stars as Mary Anning, and we first find her living a quiet life of near solitude in Lyme Regis, a seaside town in West Dorset, England. Having never received her deserved recognition from the scientific community for her discoveries, Mary cares for her mother (Gemma Jones, who also played Winslet’s mother in Sense and Sensibility, 1995), an elderly woman burdened with having watched 8 of her 10 children die before her. They eke out a living peddling the stones Mary finds and polishes to tourists. Mary rarely speaks and her face shows the wear and tear of a mostly joyless life.
One day, Rodrick Murchison (James McArdle, Mary, Queen of Scots, 2018) drops into the shop. As a fellow scientist, he is aware of and interested in Mary’s work. He condescendingly introduces his wife Charlotte (4-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) as suffering from “melancholia.” When Charlotte falls ill, Rodrick asks Mary to look after her while he continues his travels. Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secareneau, Amulet, 2020) examines Charlotte and recommends rest and sea air. He also takes notice of Mary, an occurrence to which she pays little mind.
The contrast between Charlotte and Mary is not limited to age and class. They aren’t particularly fond of each other initially, though Mary slowly nurses her back to health. The two ladies finally connect over a heavy rock half-buried in sea wall sediment. The evolution of their relationship is slow, but thanks to the two outstanding actors, it’s quite something to watch. Ms. Winslet is particularly affecting as the woman beaten down by life and reluctant to allow any glimmer of hope. We see this in her interaction with neighbor Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), a woman with whom there was a previous bond. The old saying goes, “opposites attract,” and here the two opposites, Mary and Charlotte, bring out the best in each other.
The skilled actors never allow the film to slide into melodrama, and instead offer two occasions where unbridled emotion jumps off the screen. A passionate and liberating love scene is the first, and then a later re-connection provides the second. Mostly, Mary forces herself to conceal her rare happiness – we wonder if this is due to her belief it won’t last, or if it’s because she feels unworthy. Either way, it’s quite something to watch Ms. Winslet show us what’s she’s experiencing inside.
Music from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran never overpower the moment, and the extremely talented cinematographer Stephane Fontaine works his magic. His previous work includes Jackie (2016), Elle (2016), Captain Fantastic (2016), Rust and Bone (2012), A Prophet (2009), all beautifully filmed. Filming took place in Lyme Regis, the actual town where Mary Anning collected fossils in the 1800s. Filmmaker Lee’s controversial dramatic license with the relationship is apparently done to better explain Mary Anning’s life, and it’s likely the first film where new acquaintances connect in a deep way thanks to the unearthing of a unique rock.