Film Review: Ammonite

Lara Garrett graduated from Mansfield College in summer 2020 with a first-class degree in History. She served as an undergraduate representative on the CGIS steering committee in 2019-20.

On 17th October 2020 - the final day of this years BFI London Film Festival - Ammonite was shown in cinemas across the UK, garnering high critical acclaim. I was immediately engrossed and, judging by the enthusiastic comments I overheard on leaving the cinema, so were my fellow audience members. The film, written and directed by up-and-coming filmmaker Francis Lee, is a beautifully moving celebration of women - their qualities, capabilities, and relationships. Though the basic premise is not new, given recent interest in feminist and queer cinema, the sensitivity and nuance of Ammonite make it well worth watching.

Set in Lyme Regis around 1840, the film follows Mary Anning, working-class palaeontologist played brilliantly by Kate Winslet. She discovered hundreds of scientifically important fossils during her lifetime, including that of an ichthyosaur when she was just eleven years old. But she did not receive her due credit; rather her discoveries were appropriated by higher-class men. This becomes apparent from the very first scene, when Mary’s name on the label for the ichthyosaur fossil is replaced by that of a man. Later, she goes to see the ichthyosaur, displayed at the British Museum. Wide, imposing shots of the Museum’s exterior - coupled with shots of exclusively male portraits inside - drive home the extent of patriarchal and class-based oppression Mary faced.

Yet the film is not really about work, and any who watch it hoping to see the historical Mary Anning vindicated for her scientific contributions will be disappointed. Rather, the film chooses to bypass this narrative of injustice to foreground the hope gained through female-centred networks. Women and their relationships with each other - maternal, platonic, romantic - are central to Ammonite. From the film’s inception, the strength of Mary’s bond with her mother is apparent. Their relationship is by no means easy, yet provides mutual support that is vital following the tragic death of Marys eight siblings - a poignant lesson in female endurance. Nevertheless, it is the romance between Mary and young, married gentlewoman Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) that forms the heart of the narrative.

The relationship between Mary and Charlotte unfolds beautifully, and takes each woman on her own journey towards self-discovery and self-love. While there is historical evidence that Mary and Charlotte were friends, there is nothing to suggest anything more. Rather, their romance was fictionalised for the film. Though some have questioned this artistic licence, it provides a useful reminder of the extent we do not - and cannot - know about past lives. The film is very much a product of contemporary values, yet never blatantly so. Indeed, the unfurling romance between Mary and Charlotte is notably quiet and understated. It is conveyed through snippets of dialogue, wistful glances, small gestures. It develops through days spent scouring the beach for fossils - outings replete with muddy sand, howling wind and crashing waves. Certainly there is no Hollywood glamour. Yet while Ammonite has been criticised as ‘chilly’, I feel the slow narrative and bleak surroundings lend a certain rawness to the romance between Mary and Charlotte. As Winslet noted, their relationship just is. There is no gloss, no salaciousness, making it seem all the more real - and therefore all the more moving. With such rich emotional textures, Ammonite is a film that demands multiple watchings, and I for one cannot wait to watch it again.