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Ammonite (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023


Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, Fiona Shaw, Claire Rushbrook, Mladen Petrov, Wendy Nottingham, Victoria Elliott, Nick Pearse, Beatrice Curnew, Sarah White, Liam Thomas, Sam Parks, Susie Baxter, Gethin Alderman, Robert J Purdy, Max Dowler, Paul Doods and John Mackay.

Screenplay by Francis Lee.

Directed by Francis Lee.

Distributed by Neon. 120 minutes. Rated R.

Fossils and lesbianism. Those are two words you rarely hear used together in a sentence, much less in a movie description. Yet here we are, and Ammonite, despite a slightly obscure concept, is actually a pretty good film about love and loss and science in Victorian England.

Loosely based on a true story – or at least a true character, Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet) – an early paleontologist, as well as fossil collector and dealer. Of course, being a woman in what was literally a man’s world, she rarely got the credit she deserved for her works and discoveries.

Because of this, she has to do somewhat demeaning jobs like taking money from Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) to show him her technique of going to the cliffs of the English Channel and searching for artifacts. Murchison enjoys the experience so much that he pays Anning to teach the skill to his invalid wife Charlotte for a couple of weeks. Like Anning, the Murchisons are loosely based on real people and this storyline is based on a real event.

Soon after Charlotte starts learning she takes ill. Mary nurses her back to health and eventually can teach her the art and science of paleontology.

And according to Ammonite, they eventually became lovers. The love story aspects are apparently mostly fictional, although Mary and Charlotte did become life-long friends.

This is writer/director Lee’s first time since the terrific and mostly unheralded film God’s Own Country, which is also about a same-sex relationship in a world where they were looked down upon. (God’s Own Country had more of a British Brokeback Mountain vibe.)

Honestly, it is a bit hard to see these two characters as a couple. Mary is very repressed and button-down, never acknowledging their true feelings – which I suppose you’d have to be as a lesbian in the Victorian era. Charlotte is a bit more girlish and naïve, but until she gets to know someone, she seems to be nearly silent. As her health improves, she does become more outgoing and social, though.

Is it fair to tell the story of two real people – even slightly obscure ones like these – and give them a romantic and sexual backstory which did not seem to have been there?

Honestly, I don’t know. They are not here anymore to speak for themselves. It obscures the true passion of Anning’s life – the fossils – as she shows even here, she is all about the science. I don’t know if they have ancestors who will feel the story is poorly told. No one truly believes that biopics are always true to reality. Many people seeing Ammonite won’t even realize these were real people.

Yet, I have a feeling that given a choice, Mary Anning would have preferred the movie about her life to be about her work, not her love life. That may make for a less interesting movie, but it would be a more honest one.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2020.


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