Francis Lee (“God’s Own Country”) helms the story of the 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning in “Ammonite.” Anning is credited for discovering fossils of feces of all things, but also the fact that belemnites (squid-like fossils) contain fossilized ink sacs.
Anning’s father was a cabinet maker who looked for fossils as a side occupation.
The film is both pensive and potent.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a reclusive scientist who lives with her ailing mother (Gemma Jones) and runs a curio shop. Anning trudges through the mud. She is heavy and direct, having no need for small talk. Anning lives for rocks and in many ways, she becomes one.
When Roderick Murchison (James McCardle) enters the shop, Anning speculates that the man wants a tour. Not so. Murchison has a depressive wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) who needs stimulation. Perhaps she can accompany Anning on some digging expeditions?
Anning reluctantly agrees and slogs along in the dreary mud, more interested in the soil than Charlotte. Anning returns to her dim room, accompanied by the hacking coughs of her tubercular mother. Thank goodness for her journal, dotted with Orientalist drawings of vertebrates and creatures from the sea.
One day, Charlotte is exhilarated from a journey but then breaks down in sobs thinking of her loveless marriage. Charlotte and Mary lock hands and leap into the sensual ocean, both literally and figuratively. It is a surprise to see the usually serious and stern Mary Anning now light and laughing like an adolescent. Charlotte finds a new world within her new girlfriend. Their naked bodies pulse, writhe and pound together, creating a new oceanic and sexual creature, wondrous and strange. The shared kisses make hungry sucking noises as lusty as any cephalopod.
Suddenly the death of Anning’s mother underscores the call of responsibility to her family and her continued work. The film highlights the tension with potent detail, making dialogue superfluous and unnecessary. The film is almost silent. Three quarters of the story is conveyed through facial expression and gesture.
This is an impactful yet delicate story that highlights a little known hero of the scientific world. Although it makes a fine addition to feminist hero films, it also is an historic study of an eccentric person who lived modestly with science and discovery as a personal beacon.
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