Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week, a movie that opens this weekend in actual theaters in Seattle—the Crest, for instance—and goes to VOD on 12/4.
In Ammonite, the act of hitching up one’s skirts has a variety of purposes. One is to allow a lady-scientist of the 1840s to clamber over rocks and muddy bluffs to access the fossils hidden there; another is to allow sexual access when two women aim for communion amid the mass of petticoats and bustles. It’s typical of this movie’s tactile nature that we really feel how its women must swim through these bulky hindrances to find each other.
Writer-director Francis Lee, whose previous film God’s Own Country took a grubbier but similarly physical approach to unexpected connection on a Yorkshire farm, puts us in a place where the senses are heightened: we can practically palpate the thick wool of the dresses, or the smooth sea-weathered surface of the rocks—even the sharpness of charcoal scraping on paper sounds especially harsh. If those descriptions sound sexual, well, this movie knows what it’s about.
And yet it’s about more than that, too. We are in Lyme Regis, the windy seaside town in Dorset, where the self-made fossil-hunter Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives. She and her mother (Gemma Jones) run a small shop where they sell souvenir rocks for the tourist trade, but in fact Mary is respected by London researchers for her painstaking methods of finding and preparing ancient specimens. One such scientist, Roderick Murcheson (James McArdle) leaves his pallid wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s care while he goes off to attend conferences and such on the continent; perhaps Mary’s hardy approach to the natural world will rub off on Charlotte.
The determinedly unsmiling Mary is none too keen on this idea, but something will blossom when the two women begin digging up stones. Mucus drips from the tip of Charlotte’s cold nose as she excitedly muscles a large rock out of the mud; you could hardly have a better measure of her journey from corseted wife to elbow-deep partner in discovery. Lee has a good sense of these kinds of images, and for the way people look at each other; for instance, he allows both Fiona Shaw (as Mary’s former lover) and God’s Own Country star Alec Secareanu (as the new town doctor) to give performances largely through their knowing, sympathetic eyes. Winslet and Ronan, for their part, rarely crack a smile, using their bodies—skirted or otherwise—to express their liberation from calcified norms.
For a director so attuned to nonverbal cues, Lee didn’t need to have Shaw’s character inform Mary (and us) that Charlotte “unlocked something in you.” There is some danger of leaning too hard on the fossils, too; in a different movie, they might represent all too blatantly the hardened patterns that Mary and Charlotte find themselves trapped in, or society’s strictures, or what have you. But in the movie’s final stanza, when Mary travels to London, something else becomes lucid in this movie, somewhat in the way that Ronan’s Little Women made it clear that we were not watching a love story but a portrait of the artist. Those fossils are not Mary’s corset, or a sign of her turning away from the world. They are her art. The love story will have to be negotiated within that dedication—and this, I believe, is a happy ending.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.