In 1810, when Mary Anning was just 11, she discovered her first fossilized sea creature, which she then sold to the British Museum. This began her lifelong love and career in the field of hunting for and studying fossils. Mary was one of ten children, however, eight of her siblings didn’t survive past childhood, many of whom had even passed before she was born. Now in her 40s, Mary (Kate Winslet, Titanic, Mildred Pierce) cares for her ailing mother Molly (Gemma Jones, Finding Alice) and runs the family’s beachside shop, Anning’s Fossils and Curios, in the small town of Lyme Regis in West Dorset, England. Mary spends her days on the beach nearby, combing through rocks and shells that wash ashore, looking for ammonites and other fossilized sea creature relics to clean, study, draw and sell. While she was once an acclaimed scientist, the community’s interest in fossils has waned over the decades, and now Mary finds herself mostly selling cheap tchotchkes to tourists.
One day, an upper-class man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle, Mary Queen of Scots) arrives from London to visit the shop. He is in town with his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan, Little Women, Lady Bird), who has been prescribed rest and sea water to help her overcome her melancholy over the recent loss of her child. Roderick knows of Mary’s work, and offers to pay her to spend the day joining her on one of her fossil hunts. Mary is reluctant but she and her mother could use the money, and so she agrees. Roderick decides that this activity could do his wife a lot of good as well, and persuades Mary to take Charlotte on as her apprentice for a month or two as he goes away on business. At first Charlotte is a bit upset that her husband has abandoned her, but she soon finds the time she spends with Mary to be refreshing and delightful. The two women start to form a bond and a mutual attraction. Eventually, they are overcome by the feelings they have for one another, and delve into a sexual relationship. While both women know that their time together is limited, they make the most of the time they have, exploring a relationship that will change both of their lives forever.
Ammonite is based on real people, who did in fact have a friendship. However, there is no historic evidence that there was any romantic connection between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, or that Mary Anning was even gay. However, since there was really no record of any romantic ties for Mary Anning, the writers decided to explore this possibility. The lead performances are quite strong, and the passion that forms between Mary and Charlotte is quite palpable, especially as the film goes on. However, I found the film to be a bit too slow of a burn overall, with the filmmakers taking a little too much time exploring the more humdrum daily activities of Mary and her mother Molly. There is also this somewhat somber feeling to the town. Mary and her mother live very meager lives. The highlight of Molly’s day appears to be when she cleans and polishes the eight animal figurines that represent the children she has lost. Mary is also a shell of the woman she once was, spending her time alone, on the beach digging through the mud, breaking open rocks, chiseling and cleaning fossils, or drawing in her journal. While she still enjoys hunting for fossils, you wouldn’t really know it by looking at her. She constantly looks tired and worn, a far cry from the heyday when her work ended up in museums. Then enters Charlotte, whose husband refuses her advances, saying it is too soon for another child, and so she is left lonely and depressed, laying around in bed. The blossoming relationship that forms between the Mary and Charlotte is just what both of them needed to get themselves out of the funk each of them were in.
While the film primarily concentrates on Mary, her mother and Charlotte, there is another female character that we meet, local apothecary Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw, Killing Eve), who has some sort of troubled past with Mary. However, the writers never really explain the nature of their relationship or why there is this bad blood between them. Was Elizabeth a former lover (though there’s a bit of an age gap), or was it something else? When Elizabeth first sees Mary, she mentions that she hasn’t seen her in church in a while. Was there some sort of religious falling out? I wish this relationship had been explained more. Another frustrating aspect of the film is whenever Mary is reading letters. The letters are only shown on the screen for a short time despite the text being readable. Then the camera lingers on Mary for a long time as she reads the letters, however, there is no narration provided either by Mary or by the author of the letters to let the viewer know their contents. It’s unclear why the filmmakers decided to focus on the long reaction of someone reading the letters without filling the audience in on their contents, especially since knowing the contents (having paused the screen to read the letter) definitely helped understand the scenes that follow.
Universal’s Blu-ray release looks and sounds quite good. While this small beachside town is somewhat grey and overcast, there is a definite beauty to the look of the film. The costumes and set design really transport the viewer back two centuries to a much simpler time. The picture captures this beauty with a nice level of detail and a clear, pristine picture. The audio track really comes to life in the exterior scenes, where the sounds of crashing waves and blustery wind fill the room from all directions. The interior scenes remain quite silent as the characters often have very little to say to one another. Though, when characters do speak, the dialogue remains clear and easy to understand. The Blu-ray comes packed in a standard HD keepcase without a slipcover or digital copy. The disc contains a single 6-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with the cast and filmmakers.
- 1080p / Widescreen 1.85:1
- Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
- Subtitles: English SDH
- The Making of Ammonite (5:43)
The cast and filmmakers discuss how the film is loosely based on the later years of Mary Anning’s life and her friendship with Charlotte. The actresses talk about how playing these roles were different from other things they’ve worked on, and how the story is very character-driven. The participants also discuss the costumes, sets, and three months of preparation before filmimg began. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with writer/director Francis Lee, costume designer Michael O’Connor, and stars Kate Winslet (“Mary Anning”) & Saoirse Ronan (“Charlotte Murchison”).
Ammonite was too slow of a film for me, with the filmmakers concentrating a little too much on making art rather than giving a bit more substance to the story. There really isn’t a whole lot that happens over the course of the film, though the set design is beautiful, and the two lead actresses deliver solid performances. While main characters are based on real people, the core relationship between them is one of fiction, with no historical evidence of any romantic attraction between them. The technical presentation of the Blu-ray is quite good, but the disc only contains a single 6-minute bonus feature. Fans of the actresses may wish to rent it first before a blind buy, but fans of the film should be pleased by the presentation.