Well, I certainly hadn’t expected that by mid-October, I would have seen a grand total of six films at the cinema. I’m not even sure I’ll see another one this year: new releases continue to be put back, and my usual cinema has closed again. The film I’ve just been to see, Ammonite, was only airing yesterday, to close out the BFI London Film Festival. To see it, I visited another, smaller cinema I’d never actually been to before, which provided a little extra comfort and homeliness with sofas rather than seats.
Ammonite is a period piece about the 19th-century fossil hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who discovered some of the earliest examples of prehistoric reptiles like ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs. I was certainly very interested to see any sort of film about Mary: I’ve previously visited her hometown of Lyme Regis and gone on a fossil walk along the beach. However, as made clear in the trailer, this film isn’t really about the fossils. Instead, it focusses on Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), who comes to Lyme Regis with her geologist husband while suffering badly from “melancholia”. When Charlotte remains in the town to convalesce while her husband goes to Europe, Mary becomes her reluctant companion, with their relationship becoming increasingly intimate and complicated as time passes.
This is definitely one of those films where less is more. Dialogue is kept to a minimum – there are a lot of scenes with none at all – so every word counts, and Winslet and Ronan do an excellent job in conveying their inner thoughts through facial expression alone. There’s not much background music either, so it has a larger impact when it is used, such as when it gradually becomes loud and overwhelming in a scene where Mary is feeling isolated at a social gathering. The time period, the rough and windy seaside setting, and the poverty that Mary has to endure, are all captured very well.
While Mary and Charlotte may not have many extensive conversations, watching their relationship progress is still very engaging. They both start out as distant characters, for differing reasons that are ultimately linked to being a woman in a man’s world: Mary has had a hard life and is resigned to not getting the credit she deserves for her fossil discoveries, while Charlotte is stuck in a joyless marriage. Gradually, they bring each other out of their shells, but additional conflict is generated by the class difference between them: Charlotte feels useless while staying in Mary’s little house, and Mary is out of place in the social circle Charlotte is used to.
The biggest artistic licence that the film takes – and the main element of it that I didn’t like – was the lesbian romance between Mary and Charlotte. That’s a big thing to invent for people who existed in real life, when there is no actual evidence for it. And honestly, if you’re going to make a film about Mary Anning, there are plenty of interesting things you can focus on that aren’t made up – like the struggles she faced because of her gender, and the impact that her discoveries made on the scientific community – as Tracy Chevalier does in her novel Remarkable Creatures. As I said, there’s not much focus on the fossils and the science; this film isn’t great in terms of telling Mary Anning’s story – in fact, it would probably have worked fine with fictional (or historically inspired) characters. Yet simply taken as a film, it’s really good.
Outside of the context of historical accuracy, if you enjoy more artsy films, Ammonite is a highly worthwhile watch, very atmospheric with great performances. Rating: 4.5/5.