“Ammonite” swims in risk and romance
Updated: Jun 24, 2022
BLU-RAY REVIEW / FRAME SHOTS
Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning a lifelong fossil-collector and paleontologist and Saoirse Ronan plays Charlotte Murchison a London geologist and illustrator.
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Blu-ray, 2020, R for graphic sexuality, nudity, profanity; streaming via Amazon Prime Video, Apple, FandangoNOW, Google Play, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
Best extra: Only one, a making-of documentary
SET PRIMARILY in the southwestern English seaside village of Lyme Regis, nicknamed the “Jurassic Coast” for the prevalence of prehistoric fossils found there, “Ammonite” is a fictional forbidden love story, whose protagonists are based on actual people.
Mary Anning (1799-1847), played by an extremely de-glamorized Kate Winslet (“The Reader” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) was a lifelong fossil-collector and paleontologist who made significant discoveries, some of which are ensconced in the British Museum. She never truly received due for her work, thanks to a patriarchal environment in which it was unheard of for a woman to be a scientist. She earned her living primarily by selling small fossils to tourists.
Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869), portrayed by Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird” and “Brooklyn”), was a London geologist and illustrator who became close friends with Anning. The two fossil-hunted together and kept up a correspondence, but there is no evidence of anything remotely romantic between them.
(1-3) Mary continues her hunt for fossils along the “Jurassic Coast” in Southwestern England. (4) Roderick Murchison husband to Charlotte first joins the search for fossils. (5&6) Roderick and Charlotte’s relationship is fractured, as she suffers from melancholia.
The real Anning did achieve a measure of recognition during her lifetime, particularly for her discoveries of fossilized dinosaur skeletons and other rarities, but many of her finds were attributed to her male counterparts, and she was denied entry into the men’s club of the Royal Geological Society. Despite eventually receiving an annuity from a British scientific association, Anning spent the bulk of her life in relative poverty and obscurity, and died of breast cancer at the age of 47.
Had writer/director Francis Lee chosen to take all that is known about Anning’s life story, without the graphic sex, gay romance, and intrigue, he could have made a fascinating biopic. Or, had he changed the names of the protagonists, used features of Anning’s life as inspiration, to create the same beautiful erotic love story, that would have worked. But to fabricate the melodramatic (albeit flawlessly acted) affair, out of whole cloth, comes off as a nod to fashion and sensationalism.
If you can get past that, “Ammonite’s” excellent cast, which also includes Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw and James McArdle, intelligent dialogue, and beautiful cinematography and authentic-looking production design make it more than worth watching.
(1) Charlotte stays on and works with Mary but has a complete breakdown. Mary nurses her back to health. (2&3) A fictional love affair develops between the women.
This Blu-ray comes from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and is extremely satisfying to behold. Captured on 6K-8K Redcode RAW cameras (1.85:1 aspect ratio) and then downconverted to 2K, the colors are uniformly well-saturated, skin tones are consistently natural, and there is plenty of fine detail throughout.
The six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack is also excellent, with sound effects putting viewers right there on the sea coast, with waves crashing and seagulls calling. The dreamy score, composed by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann, is unobtrusive, but adds to the mood and tenor of the film. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible, with subtitles available if desired.
The only bonus feature is a making-of documentary that lasts a measly five minutes and change. In it, Lee says he “wanted to explore this woman’s life … (she) had never been recognized in her own lifetime … but I am obsessed with human emotions and relationships. I wanted to give her a relationship that was worthy of her.”
He says he worked with Winslet and Ronan for three months before the shoot, so they could “build their characters from scratch … from birth.” Ronan adds, “Francis gave me an opportunity to create this life for her … it became quite personal.”
Winslet says this type of role was new and different for her, playing someone with love for another woman, and that it was “hard to play someone who is so still.” She also notes, with relief, that she and the costume designer agreed that Anning would probably not wear a corset, because she “couldn’t be as physical as she had to be, to do her work” if she were constrained by the tight undergarment. Lee explains, “I don’t like stunt doubles or hand doubles; Kate and Saoirse had to learn everything they do in the film.” He adds that the two actors went to Lyme Regis and were “fossilling for weeks!”
Winslet concludes, “I was more inspired by Mary Anning than by any character I’ve played,” and that it is “important to tell this story now. “We’re living in a time when women are absolutely obsessed with other women – not how we look – but what we have to say, what we have to teach each other.”
— Peggy Earle
(1) Mary’s mother Molly (Gemma Jones) gives Charlotte a letter from her husband. (2) Much of “Ammonite” was filmed not far from Winslet’s beachfront home on the English Channel.
(1&2) Charlotte, near her home in London, as Mary pays her a visit. (3) Mary’s dinosaur fossil discovery, displayed at the British Museum, but attributed to a man. (4) Charlotte and Mary exchange knowing glances over the exhibit case.