Ammonite fossils, often hundreds of years old, have been known to activate life energies. Placed to the East or West of your home, ammonite can bring stability, grounding, and protection to any space. In Francis Lee’s new film about an acclaimed paleontologist, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), who embarks on an intense affair with the wife of a scientist in the same field, the ammonite ignites a whole spectrum of desires.
The dreary coastal town in 1840s England is the backdrop for this sensually explosive film about two women trapped in a routine of silence and despair who are brought together by circumstance. It’s as though they’ve been drowning on land without knowing what it is to take a breath. Kate Winslet is nothing short of extraordinary as the renowned scientist Mary Anning, who registers a thousand words spoken from a single look. Supported strongly by Saoirse Ronan, the romance between the two women is electric. Lee’s previous film, God’s Own Country, is similarly concerned with an affair between two isolated people. That he continues to bring these LGBTQ stories to screens is a beautiful feat.
Mary Anning is a scientist who lives in her mind. Without many interactions throughout the day or words exchanged with her bereaved mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), she scales rock walls to dig her way into stone, retrieving heavy fossils to bring home. When she returns, Mary bathes herself in the middle of the kitchen as Molly serves dinner in their humble home at the back of a store where they sell Mary’s fossils and other gems.
One day, as Mary scratches into the ammonite in the store, a man dressed in a tailored suit and top hat, Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle), enters and pleads to join Mary on the beach searching for ammonite. He also offers to purchase a large fossil from Mary, asserting that her reputation in the geographical society is legendary. He would be honored as a fellow scientist to accompany her.
Reluctant and unable to comprehend sharing the same space with someone when she is resolute in being occupied with her mind, Mary agrees. Roderick is accompanied by his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who stands silently in the store’s corner. Later, they dine at a restaurant, and he orders an array of items off a menu for himself. When the waiter nods toward Charlotte, Roderick merely says she will have the white fish baked, no sauce.
Charlotte is unhappy in her life, struggling to even get out of bed. When Roderick needs to leave town, he persuades an antipathetic Mary to let Charlotte accompany her on the beach. Charlotte used to be bright, funny, and clever, but she has disappeared into what doctors have called ”melancholia”. On the first day at the beach, Mary and Charlotte fight as Mary adjusts to her new circumstances. But when Charlotte gets trapped in a cabin on the beach and returns to Mary’s home hypothermic, Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secareanu) recommends Mary care for Charlotte back to health.
Well, she does just that, and the women, growing closer each day, become lovers. As their kisses become more passionate, the women gasp for air as they blossom both within their bodies and with each other.
Life energies are activated indeed.
The film lives deliberately in its setting, with each clatter of plates or wind against sails acutely observed. We watch for a full minute as Mary gets dressed after her bath in the kitchen to experience the world as she does so we may grasp those moments of passion. What may have been a slow, uneventful feature is instead incredibly detailed and natural. Francis Lee ensures that while the plot is thin, it’s the smaller moments that pack a punch.
Just watch as Mary and Charlotte attend a recital at the invitation of Dr. Lieberson, where Mary’s former lover Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw) is also in attendance. Elizabeth meets Charlotte when Mary takes a moment outside for solitude and fumes when they sit together in the front row, leaving Mary alone in the back. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine holds on to Mary’s displeased and confused expression; it’s that her desires are on Charlotte, and she wants to be around her and only her.
Winslet, stern with eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed against repetitious movements as she carves into stone, is phenomenal. She has always been an actor that fully envelops characters, but her turn as Mary Anning is painstakingly good. Charlotte recovers from the hypothermia in Mary’s bed, and once she is well, she invites Mary to share with her. Winslet’s face registers desire, intrigue, reluctance, insecurity, and fear. There may not be much dialogue in the film, but Winslet says more with her expressive delivery.
Saoirse, of course, is fascinating, and it’s a performance that allows her to be more internalized than in her previous roles. Though it may be difficult to see these two revered actresses as lovers, they do their best to exude the chemistry and appetite that Mary and Charlotte warrant.
Mary digs her way through the stone, trudging along pebbled beaches and muddy walls. She will sit for hours at a time, scraping against a rock to find a fossil beneath. That she can discover something rare with another human being is life-changing in itself.