Director and writer Frances Lee carefully and very tenderly tells the life story of pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning with this gentle biopic. Albeit he does take a huge deal of creative licence when it comes to her love story with Charlotte Murchison (Anning’s sexual orientation has never been confirmed) Lee sets about bringing much needed light to the importance of Anning’s work.
Lee has, in past interviews admitted to being obsessed with human emotions and relationships and says that his films are often character based and character driven. This is clear with the characterisation of Mary (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). We are introduced to Mary at a time in her life when her excursion career has fallen out of fashion, she is struggling for money and keeps a guarded watch over her sickly, yet fiercely independent mother who is strapped in grief from the loss of her husband and eight children.
Winslet does a phenomenal job at capturing what is presumed to be Lee’s vision of Mary – distant, reserved and comfortable in her disheartened nature. Ronan however, is perfect in the role of Charlotte, a lonely, young upper-class woman who is forced upon Mary by a husband who’d rather not deal with the ‘mild melancholy’ she feels after the loss of their child. Charlotte is grieving and broken and her few but small attempts to reclaim some sense of normality are rebuffed by her dismissive husband Roderick Murchison (James McArdle).
Lee creates a quiet yet tense atmosphere between Charlotte and Mary which softens over time after Charlotte is taken ill and Mary is tasked with taking care of her. A hesitant and unassuming romance blossoms, one that seems to mimic Mary’s own hesitant nature. Lee cleverly uses the lack of dialogue in an impactful way to tell us much more about their slow growing attraction and passion in a way that words could not. As their relationship takes on new heights the two begin to trust each other shedding their former inhibitions and becoming something new together.
Lee uses symbolism in a fantastic way to mark the shifts in the characters. In some ways Mary is much like the ammonite she hunts daily – difficult discover, hard to obtain, painstaking to crack into but once you do something beautiful is revealed. Charlotte acts as the tools of excursion, removing Mary’s hard exterior to reveal softness. Insects are also used to represent some of the more complex emotions of the characters that they do not voice – a trapped moth under a glass when Charlotte’s grief is ripe, ladybirds for passion.
Unfortunately, the ending falls dismally flat in comparison to the build-up and is a little less deserving of the bond Mary and Charlotte have managed to form: and while this slow-paced romance holds much appeal the real-life Mary’s hard work and efforts are reduced to little more than a footnote in the fictional love plot. Little is explored in the way of her career and the very real truth behind Mary being robbed of her discoveries by men whose reputation held more weight in a male-dominated society. Instead, the romance appears to serve as a vehicle to tell the story of Mary’s extraordinary discoveries in a palatable way for viewers to digest. Without it we’re left with a one-note narrative of just a woman and her fossils when in fact her career struggles and patriarchal limitations could have been just as compelling. However, Lee has admitted that Ammonite is loosely based on the life of Mary Anning and so provides us with a delicate and enriching romance that reaches an anti-climactic end.