Lyme Regis. Home to The French Lieutenant’s Women – another film with a lot of corsets and transgression against the sexual norms expected of Victorian society. Mary (Kate Winslet) is a palaeontologist who, for reasons of class and gender, can’t make a living from her obvious talent. So she discovers fossils which get sent to the British Museum and the name of a rich, white man is attached to them before they are displayed.
Mary makes her actual wages in a tatty old shop run by her mother. She does not necessarily appear to be the world’s best shop assistant. When the doorbell rings, she tells them they’re closed without turning round. But this customer has something to offer. Roderick is one of those rich white men who keeps stealing her thunder and he’s offering her good money to follow her around watch her work.
Just when you’re suspecting that there might be something a bit creepy about Roderick, he’s off on his travels, leaving nothing behind but his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Charlotte is suffering from melancholia – what we may call depression today, though Mary mutters aloud that there seems to be fuck all wrong with her – and some sea air may do her good.
There follows a lot of gathering fossils together and Mary sending Charlotte off to have a swim, which seems to most scary thing that she’s done in her life. Before they eventually fall for each other and have graphic sex. And that is pretty much all the plot that Ammonite has to offer. And you know what? Its pretty much all the plot it needs to offer.
It is hard to watch Ammonite without thinking of Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of A Lady on Fire. There’s the same period dresses, the same lingering glances, the same feeling that if either of them misreads the feelings of the other, the consequences would be far more devastating than in a bog standard romance. And Ammonite is not as goof as Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but then again, very few films are.
Nonetheless, both the mood and the acting are excellent. Winslet is a long way from Rose in Titanic. Mary dresses unostentatiously, wears boots so that she can tramp the beaches, and smokes the occasional cigar. Apparently she insisted that no CGI was used to beautify her. In Hollywood terms, she is too plain and too old to be a leading lady (Winslet is 45!) but she is convincingly desirable.
We are told very early on that Roderick would only be gone for 4 weeks – “maybe 5, 6 at the most”, so there is always a sense of a holiday romance about it all. Sooner or later, reality is going to come crashing back, and Mary and Charlotte are not living in an era when any reality would allow to stay together. We spend much of the film anticipating the inevitable crash.
And then, just before the end, it seems that maybe a Happy Ever After is possible after all. It is a credit to the film that it does not take the sentimental option. We have already seen how rich men can treat poor women as property and not pause to consider their feelings. Well, it appears that rich women may not have the prestige of their male counterparts, but they can have the arrogance that only wealth can bring,
It seems that Ammonite is based on a true story, but only so far. There was a Mary Anning and she was an overlooked palaeontologist. She did have a friend called Charlotte, but the sexual nature of their relationship appears to exist only in the head of writer-director Francis Lee. Now I guess this is legitimate – many biopics include invented heterosexual relationships – but the use of the name of real, actual people seems a bit unnecessary.
Nonetheless, this is as good a story of class and sexuality as anything I’ve seen since – well, Portrait of A Lady on Fire. But we live in a universe with space enough for both films. Judge Ammonite on its own merits, and you have something that’s well worth watching.