I worship words, especially when they are unspoken because then they resonate louder. Through silence, not as an absence of dialogue but as an uncompromising means of direct communication, writer and director Francis Lee (best known for his God’s Own Country) in his film Ammonite (2020) speaks about numerous truths aloud.
He made it clear that he had no intention for this film to be a biopic. However, except for the love story (an utterly fictional construction), Ammonite is a tribute to Mary Anning (1799 – 1847), a pioneering paleontologist and fossil collector, and to her profound contribution to science, which was not valorized during her lifetime just because she was a woman. Despite her growing reputation for finding and identifying fossils, she was a woman in a men’s room, as shown in the film very artfully, and they did not intend to recognize her work.
Even though those male scientists were buying Mary’s fossils, which she meticulously prepared, they didn’t bother to acknowledge her accomplishments. The Geological Society of London dismissed her and all women until 1904.
The intellectual achievements of women throughout history have either been ignored, or their achievements have been appropriated (euphemism for stealing) by men. Otherwise, Anning discovered the first ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur skeleton, and she found that coprolites were fossilized feces.
The last scene in Ammonite, again without a word, fully reflects this position of the woman scientist. Mary goes to the British Museum, where the ichthyosaur is on display. Immediately at the entrance, you can notice that only men are present. Inside, on the vast wall, there are countless statues and portraits of men, and one perfect movie scene: Mary stands in front of such a portrait, turns around covering the man’s face, thus entering the frame of the picture. For a moment, it is her own portrait. As she goes around the museum, she stands out among the many almost identical male figures, which further emphasizes her exceptionality and uniqueness in that world. When she’s found in front of her display, some male’s name is on the card. Her identity has been stolen. We ask ourselves, what is she without the work to which she dedicated her whole life? This is one bitter truth this film actualizes.
The other… Simultaneously with the first narrative line goes the second: the love story between Mary and Charlotte. I’m delighted it’s about lesbian love, which further emphasizes the repressed nature of a woman during that time. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan are extraordinary as lovers Mary and Charlotte. According to many, Winslet in the leading role gives her best performance. Incredibly skillful and moderate, without exceeding the limit of restraint, she builds her character slowly and accurately to the point of lavish fullness and electricity that erupts from our side of the screen.
In recent years, Winslet has made positive changes when it comes to women in the film industry, but also for the portrayal of female characters. She rejects filters as a tool for intervening in reality and makes her characters juicy, tangible, real, so unique in their simplicity and genuineness. That is why the role of Mary Anning fits her so well. Mary is completely isolated, hermetically sealed and distanced, even at times giving the impression that she is antagonistic towards the world. In fact, coming of Charlotte, the spiral shape of tiny ammonites, Mary’s most common fossil findings, becomes symbolic and corresponds to the film’s action construction. Slowly, without haste, the concentric circles, one after the other, form layers, which gradually become more intense until they erupt in the very center. And no one can really defend themselves from that emotional explosion.
This movie is incredibly subtle in details and symbols that fulfill and enliven the world of characters. These two women are seemingly total opposites, illustrated lucidly through their handshake on the night of the recital. Mary wears knitted woollen gloves that show her raw, natural, seemingly unrefined nature, whereas Charlotte has gentle lace gloves. She’s just like them: pale, delicate porcelain jewellery. Charlotte is a sorrowful woman who cannot recover from her miscarriage but fails to find understanding or comfort in her marriage. “I want my bright, funny, clever wife back,” says Charlotte’s husband at one point, unaware that she has lost her joy of life precisely in his presence. Her world is narrow; she’s locked like the butterfly in a jar from the opening scenes when these two women meet. But her character slowly starts to blossom; she replaces her black clothes with vibrant colours, and her pale face slowly blushes again. The time spent with Mary starts her reawakening.
It would be a great pity to define Ammonite only as a forbidden lesbian love movie. That is just one layer. Beneath it, there are many new layers, one on top of the other, that portray love as an essential need, literally as a force that has the power to heal. The touch, delayed for so long, erupts, manifesting the immense need for intimacy and surrender to another human being, equal to thirst, to hunger. Such passion and love open a whole new world previously doomed to emptiness, darkness, and sorrow within us.
Art is unquestionably the bearer of change. Therefore, this film cannot be analyzed one-dimensionally as film art but also as a force that shakes old and harmful beliefs in the form of new winds that drive away the stale air and bring freshness.
Here is the link to the movie trailer.