The open secret of Victorian sexuality is rediscovered by film-maker Francis Lee in this fine, intimate, intelligently acted movie about forbidden love in 1840s Lyme Regis. But it isn’t exactly a tale of two French Lieutenant’s Women, despite the inevitably tense walk up the fabled Cobb, filmed in thoughtful longshot. The complicated power balance between the principals makes the comparison incorrect. Actually, the film that swam into my head afterwards was Jane Campion’s The Piano.
Ammonite is an absorbing drama that sensationally brings together two superlative performers: Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet. Combining these alpha players doubles or actually quadruples the screen voltage, and their passion co-exists with the cool, calm subtlety with which Lee inspects the domestic circumstances in which their paths crossed. It is a film about a real-life relationship speculatively reimagined with some artistic licence. But I have to say that – paradoxically – the figures of this bodiced and bonneted movie, despite being based on real life, seemed a tiny bit less real than the fictional figures of his previous film, God’s Own Country. Yet they’re just as passionate.
The heroine is Mary Anning, a pioneering 19th-century palaeontologist whose ideas and extraordinary fossil finds in Lyme Regis were coolly appropriated by the male scientific establishment from whose societies and clubs she was excluded, and probably had to put up with mediocre, mutton-chopped ninnies treating her as an eccentric amateur. The real Anning took comfort in her close friendship with fellow geologist Charlotte Murchison, whose own expertise seems to have equalled and predated her husband’s.
Lee presents things differently. Winslet plays Anning as a tough, capable but careworn woman, one grown accustomed to not declaring her feelings. Winslet gives her a look of perpetual wary resentment but fierce intellectual assertion. She is a scientist forced to be a shopkeeper, running a tourist trap in Lyme Regis (“Anning’s Fossils & Curios”), selling seashell-encrusted hand mirrors and the like. This subsidises her serious scientific work, scouring the shore for fossils, a beachcomber for ancient evolutionary secrets. Mary lives with her placid mother: a ripe performance from Gemma Jones.
A smoothly condescending London scientist swans in, professing to admire Anning’s work. This is Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) who has in tow his catatonically depressed wife Charlotte (Ronan). He asks if, in return for a substantial cash payment, he might leave his wife behind to lodge with Anning for a while, so that the sea air and healthy scientific thoughts will cure her “melancholia”. But Charlotte’s melancholia is more to do with Roderick’s passionless dullness, and the more she stays with Mary, the more a new situation is revealed.
Lee shows us the windswept seaspray in which Mary spends her days, crunching along the shore, grimly inspecting stones like an old prospector. Ronan’s Charlotte is glacial and pale as she gingerly picks her way along the beach behind her. Charlotte’s husband had been plaintively wondering where his clever wife disappeared to, and as her relationship with Mary progresses, and her mood thaws, Ronan shows us exactly where that pretty cleverness has got to – it was there all along. And it is precisely Charlotte’s effervescent, coquettish daring that allows her to take the initiative in their affair.
We can see Mary and Charlotte grow 10 years younger before our eyes – and when Mary laughs, Winslet looks the way she did in Titanic. Winslet and Ronan don’t need CGI to do this.
The question arises about Mary’s identity in the wider world: she seems to have had some sort of abandoned friendship with a local woman, Elizabeth (an elegant, sensitive performance from Fiona Shaw). But there is no homophobic disapproval in the 21st-century sense, and Lee dispenses with the old urban myth about Victoria and Victorian society not recognising the existence of gay women. At one stage, Charlotte kisses Mary in front of the housemaid, and, in answer to Mary’s panicky look, Charlotte just shrugs that this is just a “servant”, who in turn grimaces at her snobbery. Class is paramount in the recognition or non-recognition of sexuality.
It is tempting to look for the metaphorical properties of fossil-hunting: the cracking open of stones, the discovery of secrets, the thrillingly real evidence of life. Of course, Charlotte and Mary’s love is not a fossil; it lives ecstatically in the flesh-and-blood present. But for Mary that’s what the ammonites and ichthyosaurs do as well. It is a love story that is also a fascinating artefact: quixotic, romantic, erotic.