By Sarah Fonseca
Dir. Francis Lee, U.K., NEON
That Francis Lee, a self-taught filmmaker of rural providence, would consider the autodidact fossil hunter Mary Anning a worthwhile subject comes as little surprise. Existing centuries apart, the two are made for one another like mollusk and shell. In 18th-century England, Mary furiously pawed through the mud. She was a provincial woman among affluent men seeking the origins of prehistoric life. Yet no recognition was paid to scientific contributions by women in the Victorian era, and particularly women without institutional affiliation. Mary’s discoveries would only be recognized after her death. A male-identified filmmaker, Francis Lee visually appreciates passions that can be portrayed through physical interactions with nature; work, in other words.
In God’s Own Country (2017), the director’s first feature, two male farm hands fall in love during lambing season in the filmmaker’s own West Yorkshire. The connection, beautiful and wary, is both articulated by and contrasted with the graphic (and at times nauseating) nature of the work. The impoverished blue-collar subject requires an embodied approach, as Lee empathizes. “They are not people who sit around and talk about how they feel, or articulate particularly expansively on their emotions, position, or space,” he told TIFF in 2017.
In Ammonite, Lee is guided by the same goal of showing emotional connection through labor’s brute strength, this time between women. Unlike God’s Own Country’s men, seaside-dwelling Mary (Kate Winslet) is much more beholden to polite society’s postures. She grows reluctantly closer to that which irritates her when an admiring gentleman scientist Roderick (James McArdle) requests that Mary lodge his melancholic wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), as he departs on a six-week expedition. Here, unlike in God’s Own Country, there are rich men and their scientific institutions with which to reckon; men who know less than her yet pass her first-hand field knowledge and discoveries off as their own. Mary, tasked with keeping her fossil shop’s rent paid and her ailing mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), alive, cautiously engages with such vultures to generate income. Begrudgingly, she acquiesces to Charlotte’s husband. Our protagonist’s financial opportunity only leads to debt when Charlotte, already depressed, falls ill.
Molly keeps her promise to Roderick, nurturing Charlotte back to health with the herbal chest salve of a former love (Fiona Shaw). As Charlotte rebounds, she expresses gratitude and new investment in Mary’s work. The film does not reach its romantic apex with sex, but with Charlotte assisting Mary in hauling a heavy fossil the scientist had dismissed as immovable into the cottage; theirs is a grunting, grinning, mud-slicked union. It is Charlotte’s appreciation for Mary’s work that finally gives the older woman license to treat her assistant as she does the tide pool crevasses that she excavates for shells. These sex scenes, coordinated by the actresses, still possess Lee’s ferality and antipathy for the delicate. They’re also plenty funny. During an instance of postcoital haze, Charlotte lies in the tiny bed in a sweater and nothing else with Mary, who wears nothing except an alley cat’s smirk. The visitor asks her host to repeat a crude limerick. After a moment’s hesitation, Mary deadpans, “There once was a woman named Sally, who, enjoying the occasional dally, sat on the lap of a well-endowed chap, and cried, ‘Sir, you're right up my alley.’”
In reality, Mary’s monumental contributions to paleontology and pre-Darwinian thought were either stolen or dismissed for decades: at eleven, she found the first ichthyosaur; later, she assisted in identifying coprolite as feces and found two plesiosaurs. Mary’s family would sell her ichthyosaur bones to make ends meet. Eventually, the British Museum showcased the creature under a plaque crediting the male owner’s name—not its girl-discoverer. It comes as a relief that Francis Lee is not a punishing filmmaker. We are not made to observe Mary living out these well-documented instances of discovery and loss on-screen. Nor are we inclined to reduce her life to a quest for notoriety, foiled by Victorian paternalism.
Lee, who films rough labor with incredible tenderness, instead takes issue with Mary’s adversary: the gate-kept institution. Affording Mary’s seaside digging grounds the legitimacy given to museums, the filmmaker is content to spend most of the drama’s 120 minutes on the Lyme Regis coast, observing Mary and Charlotte engage with one another in relative silence. This is not to show its equivalency to official institutions but its stark difference, and the transcendent magic of seeing two untrained 1840s women hard at work for no one but themselves.
Lee declines to romanticize the aquaria and vivaria that often held organisms and objects pilfered domestically and abroad during the height of British imperialism. Ammonite keeps its forays into the British Museum to the strictest minimum: in the opening scene, to bear witness to the double offense of curators berating a maid while stripping the ichthyosaur of attribution to Mary; and at the end, when the fossil hunter is finally reunited with her priceless childhood discovery. The Western encyclopedic museum that Ammonite takes to task—its contents often gleaned over centuries through practices resembling high crime—is deeply relevant to today’s conversations. Once-celebrated sculptures are being reconsidered. Trustees’ ties to the mechanisms of war are being identified. All the while, artists desperately cling to whatever emergency resources these institutions have left over after legal counsel. The benign institutional charm of Night at the Museum (2006), with its ebullient Easter Island heads, has no place in 2020, and certainly not when Black Panther’s Killmonger murdered a curator at the fictional Museum of Great Britain for refusing to deaccession Wakandan art. This year, the very institution that first denied Mary scientific authorship has elected to publicly display the bust of its slave-owning founder as curatorial commentary on the recent wave of toppled sculptures—an indication that, as in Mary’s day, the British Museum doesn’t actually want to do the work of reckoning. Lee's refusals beleaguer this point, distilling the political burden of the museum down to two brief scenes, privileging the tenuous relationship between these two women as a result.
In his effort to articulate the devastating isolation wrought by class, Lee perhaps underestimates the lesbian spectator’s unconscious, eternal quest for a happy romantic ending. In the previously mentioned scene where Mary removes her boots, skirt, and trousers and journeys into the water, Charlotte follows her, and they kiss. This intimacy, as with other scenes that make clever use of Mary’s worktable, never comes at expense of her work; it is assimilated into it. Likewise, Charlotte is unwilling to compromise on her Victorian conveniences, which culminates in disaster when Mary visits her months later in London. Charlotte, like the British Museum curators, is abusive to her servants, even after her formative physical studies with Mary on the shore.
To fully appreciate Kate Winslet’s rugged performance as Mary, viewers should consider where her career essentially began: not on grey English beaches, but within New Zealand’s emerald woodlands in 1994’s ripped-from-the-headlines thriller Heavenly Creatures. Having beaten out 175 other girls in auditions, the eighteen-year-old took on a part that demanded an aggressive range, the sort of which many emerging performers can only dream of being offered, let alone fulfilling. Opposite Melanie Lynskey, she would play homicidal midcentury school kid Juliet Hulme, brought to the brink of familial carnage by the girls’ runaway imaginations.
Ammonite, with its physically demanding yet gentle portrait of women connecting to one another through land, would seem to have little in common with Heavenly Creatures. Yet the similarities exceed homoerotic postures, ill-fated loves, and Winslet’s headlining. In both films—and despite Ammonite’s silences and Heavenly Creatures’ frenetic laughter—we see Winslet learning to work with primal femininity; that which turns its nose to rules and propriety and, despite consequences, does precisely as it wishes. Rules have never been Francis Lee’s thing, either. “I work very instinctively and intuitively,” he said in an interview. “I don’t feel like I’m bound by those restrictions of, ‘well, you can’t do that.’” In Ammonite, actress and filmmaker transgress to bring an original rule-breaker to life.