‘Ammonite’ Finds Beauty in the Dirt

Francis Lee’s new period piece is a portrait of two ladies on fire.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) haunts the Lyme Regis shoreline. She lives in the nearby village with her mother (Gemma Jones). A solitary figure, silent and taciturn, Mary combs the beach searching for fossils. The ammonites she unearths and preserves keep their household financially afloat. But they’re essentially paupers, making do with candlelight to keep them warm and broth to sip at night. When she’s not digging in the mud-ridden cliffs, she’s scrubbing the kitchen floor. Mary’s hands are rough, industrious and always in motion. 

Mary is, if not renowned, then quietly respected for her discoveries. But in the 1840s, when Francis Lee’s Ammonite is set, her gender and class have impeded her worldly or, what we would now call, professional progress. In a field dominated by wealthy men, she’s neither accepted into their society nor granted access to their research. When an amateur paleontologist named Murchison arrives in town to admire her work, Mary’s routines are interrupted and then irrevocably altered. 

Lee’s second feature film, like his first, God’s Own Country (2017), zeroes in on the erotic tension burgeoning between a same-sex couple. Ammonite studies the minute details of Mary’s repressed desire — initially disguised as antipathy — for Murchison’s wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Cloaked in various shades of gray, the movie’s visual schemes align with her wintry moods. Lee withholds sunlight from the frame until Mary and Charlotte realize they’re in love. 

The symbolism of sudden, romantic sunshine sounds cheesy but looks and feels completely organic. Lee can photograph a beautiful landscape and incorporate the chaotic tides of the natural world. Ocean waves seethe, rise, and crash. Winds dishevel everything. Gritty sand crunches underneath the characters’ footsteps. Particles stray across doorways and inside sleeves and socks. The elements complete the portrait of a woman who’s used to discomfort.   

During a telephone interview, Lee talked about his decision to address similar themes in both of his films. “To me, when I think about it, I look at the society that we, that I live in, and it is predominantly a heterosexual society,” he says. Lee grew up as a queer kid in the 1980s, in rural Yorkshire. He describes Ammonite as a very, very personal film that reflects his experience. “The shame, I guess, that I internalized then, and have continued to internalize for the rest of my life, I’m still dealing with and trying to work through.” 

Things have obviously changed since the 1840s, and the 1980s, but not universally. Lee believes that we haven’t got to the point where queer kids can come out of the womb announcing, “Hey! I’m this.” They have to go on a personal journey, navigating their sense of being different, and sometimes being shown that being different is wrong. “I don’t know about the U.S. but in the U.K. since the vote on Brexit, homophobic attacks have actually increased on the streets,” the director says. “I’m not sure as a society — outside of our own bubbles — if we have progressed to the point where we’d like to be.”

Out of self-protection, Mary’s been conditioned to be secretive about who she is and who she desires. But Lee doesn’t make her into a symbolic figure of queer liberation. To avoid the trappings of a stiff costume drama, he thought through every detail of Mary’s life, from her wardrobe to the condition of her damp cottage. When Mary wears her sea blue coat to the beach, it quickly gets caked with mud. Lee and the costume designer, Michael O’Connor, agreed upon an idea — the garments weren’t costumes. They were just clothes the characters wore. 

One of the things that fascinated Lee about this world was the fossil hunters of that era. “They were predominantly middle or upper class, who did it as a hobby,” he says. Whereas someone like Mary Anning is primarily doing it to put food on the table. Lee’s research showed that, “Unless Mary goes out onto those beaches and finds those, what she would have called ‘her relics,’ and brings them back and works on them and sells them, they ain’t gonna have coal to put on the fire or food to put on the table.” 

The director explained that Ammonite was made, in part, as a reaction to the gloss on period dramas. “They’re all incredibly well lit,” he says. “When you watch one you’re going, ‘Where is that light coming from?’ Because they’ve only got two candles in that scene.” For Lee, that approach detracts from the authenticity or integrity of the experience. “You see horses in period dramas — they’ve never got mud or shit around their feet.” The movie doesn’t omit those details. “It was about exploring the reality of these people’s lives, as much as we could,” he says. 

Ammonite is now playing at the Smith Rafael Film Center.

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