Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secareanu, Fiona Shaw
Director: Francis Lee
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that the UK film industry was awaiting the new film from Francis Lee with baited breath. After the storming success of pre-Brexit-time-capsule-farmhand-gay-romance God’s Own Country, he attracted an A-List cast for his lesbian romantic biopic of geologist Mary Anning and we were all expecting an awards juggernaut. Except the result is somewhat underwhelming.
Kate Winslet (Titanic, The Reader) stars as fossil hunter, Anning, who combs the beach beside her home in Lyme Regis each day for fossils. Living with her mother (Jones – Bridget Jones’ Diary, Sense And Sensibility) on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, the wet weather in winter means that she has a short period to collect the fossils before they are swept away into the sea. Her finds are sent to the British Museum, but because she is a woman, she receives no credit for them. Approached by a geological hobbyist (McArdle – Mary Queen Of Scots, ‘71) to teach him how to find fossils, she finds herself lumbered with the man’s melancholy wife, Charlotte (Ronan – Ladybug, Atonement), who he employs Mary to look after, in an attempt to cure her post-miscarriage depression with some harsh winter sea air. Though Anning is reluctant to participate, she soon finds herself embroiled in a passionate love affair with her.
Dorset in winter is suitably bleak, with the whipped-up surf dredging the pebble beach as the windswept couple stagger through the wind and rain in brine-drenched skirts and muddy boots, lugging bags of stones behind them. The coast here is a harsh place, where Charlotte has ironically been brought to cheer her up. In one scene, we see her wheeled into the sea in a rickety wooden bathing machine as the tempest rages around her. This is not the idyllic English seaside of picture postcards, but instead a harsh and grim place where rock can be eroded to the surface, perfect for Anning’s continuing study.
The romance between them is about the pair finding something warm and beautiful in the harshest of conditions. Charlotte is left cold by life in London, but it is here amongst the extreme elements where she finds love. And for Mary, whose entire life is about the calcified remains of death, bones and hard rock, this is something very much alive. There’s plenty of chemistry between the two, even if Winslet portrays Anning cold, stony-faced (do you see what I did there?) and variously furious at the world. The love scenes do become quite animal at times, before the pair retreat back behind the Victorian temperance of their bonnets, bussels and walking boots. It’s all very romantic, except none of it is true.
There is no evidence – or even historic suggestion – that Anning was a lesbian. Though she was unmarried and did spend much time with women, director and screenwriter Lee has read between the lines of this lack of romantic history and coloured it in with quite the artistic license. Subsequently, we have a biopic about a real person that revolves around a fictional romance, which takes up eighty percent of the screen-time. It’s almost like Lee decided he wanted make a film about her, but decided that her life was actually too boring to be depicted without embellishment. And that embellishment has become the film itself. And because the film is aiming for such stark realism in its execution – it does make Dorset in 1840s look like a particularly unpleasant place to be – it’s somewhat discombobulating to discover that the fundamental basis for the film is actually a fabrication. And, of course, it COULD be true. But so COULD she be Queen Victoria’s secret sister. Or so COULD she have actually been a very good sculptor who made particularly life-like carvings of ammonites.
Unfortunately, the film also suffers from being almost painfully slow. There’s not an enormous amount of plot, so it trudges through the slow-build of their romance without any real incidents or impediments along the way. Bearing in mind that it’s set nearly two centuries ago, neither character seem to have any qualms about embarking on – or showing off – their socially unacceptable entanglement. In many ways, this is a companion-piece to God’s Own Country. Both are Queer romances set in the bleak British countryside, but where the former film was fairly rich in terms of plot, Ammonite is decidedly not. Both Winslet and Ronan deliver a pair of delectably rich performances, but the film itself is slight and a bizarre biopic, which is arguably not a biopic at all.
OUT NOW TO WATCH ON DEMAND, RELEASED BY LIONSGATE.