Ammonite: Can You Dig It?, by David Bax
In the opening scene of Francis Lee’s Ammonite, a brief sort of prologue set decades before the main story, we see a complete, fossilized ichthyosaur skeleton being arranged for display in a museum. Empirical though it may be, to contemplate this great, fierce beast from our world’s ancient past is frightening, almost Lovecraftian. When we catch up, years later, with the person who excavated the fossils, she’s still at it. But when she makes an unexpected new acquaintance, the film’s central metaphor becomes clear. What will these two closed-off women dig up in each other?
Sometime in the first half of the nineteenth century, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) lives with her mother (Gemma Jones) in the coastal English town of Lyme Regis where she spends her time hunting for fossils, cleaning them up, selling them in her shop and generally not being very social with people. Soon, a traveling geologist and admirer, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), comes along, bringing with him his ailing wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). When Charlotte is too ill to travel, she stays in Mary’s care and improves quickly, perhaps because of her husband’s absence or possibly because she finds in Mary something she’s never known before.
All of the main characters in Ammonite are based on real people, though the events that take place fall under the banner of historical fiction. But, apart from the period-specific costumes and production design, Lee hasn’t much altered the highly subjective style of filmmaking from his feature debut three years ago, the stunning God’s Own Country. He’s still presenting us with oppressively overcast England and operating in an instinctive, handheld mode with close-ups that occasionally cross the line from intimate to intrusive.
Lee’s real calling card as an auteur, though, is not visual but aural. His settings are often rural but far from idyllic. Wind rushes, waves crash and birds screech. Nature itself roars and rattles at the characters. The very air is a din. Things don’t calm down much indoors either. Lee seems at times as if he has chosen to leave live production audio unmixed; mundane sounds like a chair leg dragging across a wooden floor threaten to drown out the dialogue.
And yet it never becomes assaultive. The auditory overload brings to mind ASMR videos. Ammonite is eventually sensual in other meanings of the word as well when Mary and Charlotte’s connection becomes physical.
Winslet and Ronan may not be as convincing in their passion as Josh O’Connor and Alex Secăreanu were in God’s Own Country but Lee has nevertheless furthered the case for himself as a director of note. Even if Ammonite‘s story never quite takes flight, it’s more an experience than a narrative.