In a tricky year for cinema, the London Film Festival has been a positive force in the last ten days and while the BFI have taken a scaled-back approach, reducing the usually 300 films to just 50-odd full length features, combining a handful of well-managed in-person screenings with a vast digital output has ensured the event has remained a cultural highlight. And while the stars and creatives have been prevented from attending, supplying pre-recorded Zoom discussions in their stead, the variety of the programme, its topicality in presenting diverse voices and the BFI’s commitment to creating a truly international and thoughtful selection has made this a different but nonetheless engaging event.
Combining the desire to showcase new perspectives, hidden stories and innovative film-making approaches, this year’s Closing Gala was Francis Lee’s second feature Ammonite, the dual story of scientist Mary Anning whose fossilised discoveries in Lyme Regis is revealed alongside an intimate relationship with Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a collector and archaeologist who approaches Mary as a pupil and leaves his spouse in her care.
Lee’s film picks up on some of the key features of his beloved debut movie God’s Own Country in its presentation of the craggy brutality of the landscape against which individual reticence is tested, while the dominance of nature is shown to exert itself against the inability of the protagonists to resist. This displays both in enduring the unforgiving elements and in their own irresistible personal inclinations neither of which can be dominated or overcome.
Relocating to the past, Ammonite attempts to do several things in recasting the nineteenth-century costume drama – usually adapted from the era’s novels – to include a narrative built around a same-sex relationship that is treated with the same degree of tenderness and passion as any other, while also rethinking the hidden history of female achievement in our understanding of the process and progress of scientific achievement.
The Inspiring Period Drama Heroine
Classic novels are filled with admirable, inspiring heroines proving a characterful and intellectual match for their soon-to-be husbands or the story’s other male protagonist who they often outwit. Marion Halcombe, for example, in The Woman in White proves every bit as resourceful, determined and courageous as a man, an attribute the scheming Count Fosco pays tribute to. Likewise, her simpering tendencies aside, Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters becomes a true partner for Roger Hamley, sharing his love of natural history in which they work side-by-side. And across nineteenth-century writing in particular we see spirited female leads from the mischievous Becky Sharp in Vanity Fare living by her wits, the more muted feminism of governess Jane Eyre and even the gaggle of lively Austen creations of which Elizabeth Bennett is most beloved. But none of these women who in every other respect can boast agency, psychological depth and rounded personalities can claim to have truly independent means, able to exist alone in a man’s world.
And women do work or live apart from men in classic novels, so alongside the governesses and maids dependent on their master’s whims, there are female thieves and barmaids in Dickens, gentlewomen with modest incomes but ridiculous personalities like Mrs Bates in Emma, women who have fallen on hard times and turned to prostitution like Fantine in Les Miserables and women who work in factories or as farmhands as Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy portray. But entrepreneurial spirit is far less likely, perhaps seen only in Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall who sets herself up as a ‘beggarly painter’ as her husband sneers.
What we see so rarely in literature – and thereby in period drama adaptations – is the independent woman earning a living in a role equivalent to a man’s where scientific endeavor is the only means of putting food on the table, so this depiction of Mary Anning as the sole breadwinner is a valuable one. And while Francis Lee has based his film on a real person, through this semi-fictionalised and heavily augmented account of Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison, Ammonite offers a rare and real life example of a female period drama protagonist not ultimately heading for marriage (or helping someone else find it) or being ‘rescued’ in the tradition sense from her otherwise impecunious existence. She instead exists purely on her own economic terms as an expert paleontologist and while she wants not part of the society her work offers, that male characters seek-out her exhibits and expertise is important.
The Scientific Woman
Yet, in a wider look at cultural representations of real-life scientific women, they are often portrayed as serious, often difficult sometimes awkward personalities battling as much against the stymieing effect of male colleagues as the various research challenges they undertake. Take Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 a woman whose contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure plays out against her fractious relationship with Maurice Wilkins whose work she is expected to support rather than surpass. And while the play gave hints of the warmth Franklin’s personality may have contained, its stage presentation was framed within male repression and studious dedication to her work.
The same may be said of Anning in Ammonite who has a shop and workspace where she sells her beach finds to tourists eager for shell-bordered mirrors and equivalent tat. But she remains a figure in self-imposed exile, though still encumbered by the masculine-defined limits of society, making most of her income selling more substantial fossil discoveries to private collectors and museums who hastily erase her name from any record of the object and replace it with their own. Repeatedly we see Mary scraping dutifully away at the remains of sea creatures lodged in the rocks and pebbles discovered during her beach combing exercises, and in a throwaway moment we learn the skill was inherited from her father, long since deceased – a man shaped her and men hold her back.
These representations of Franklin and Anning are not necessarily incorrect, but they are consistent with one another and the wider individualistic studiousness that is always attached to depictions of women in science. Unusually, however, Lee focuses on the intimacy of Mary’s effortful process, the precision and concentration of a skilled craftsman slowly and painstakingly exposing her archaeological finds, drawing useful parallels with both Charlotte’s more typical period drama accomplishments as she sews flowers onto a handkerchief that emphasis how limited the presentation of women has been within the genre. There are also comparisons to be inferred with the growing romantic connection between the two women; where once Mary only felt a passion for her work she soon redirects some of that intensity and energy into Charlotte. But while the film perhaps wants us to see the presentation of a same-sex relationship as its most subversive assault on the period drama cliches, it is Mary’s independent and self-sustaining career that feels most progressive here.
The Natural World Metaphor
Aligning the wildness of nature and the intensity of human relationships is becoming one of Lee’s trademarks and like some of the great novelists of the nineteenth-century the windswept vigour of the English countryside and coast becomes an allegory for the raging emotions that emerge from his characters. But, like the Brontes, Hardy and Eliot to a degree the hardness of the landscape and the buffeting elements is reflected in the often unreachable hardness of the characters, at least as his films begin.
Here a weather-beaten Mary stalks the rugged beach at Lyme Regis that is difficult for her to traverse. Its beautiful but merciless in its way, muddy and cold as the scientist is battered by high winds, drizzle and sea spray in dogged pursuit of her work. The flinty Mary is no happier at home in the few simply furnished rooms behind the shop where she lives with her grief-filled mother Molly (Gemma Jones). It is a lodging with little personality and several times we see Mary shivering in multiple layers in a spartan bedroom. Even the shop with its frosted windows and haphazard, dusty display barely looks like a retail environment.
The association between the rocks that Mary excavates and her own buried humanity is an obvious one but the exterior provides further associations with the interior experience of the characters. Framed against the uneven cliffs and jagged edges, Mary is downright unfriendly to both Roderick Murchison in his first combing visit and later to the near-silent Charlotte who is unceremoniously dismissed. But the latter’s failed attempt at seabathing which batters against her releases a recklessness in both women that Lee portrays as an inevitable and irrefutable outcome of their proximity.
Lyme Regis is quite the literary catalyst. Famously enraging the smoldering embers of Captain Wentworth’s love for Anne Elliot in Persuasion as well as the admiration of Mr Elliot, it was also location of secret assignations and yearning looks in the The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Here it serves much the same purpose in stoking the fervor between Mary and Charlotte. And Lee, as in God’s Own Country draws a direct line between the landscape and the sexual desire exhibited by his characters, their needs as much a part of the natural world as Mary openly urinating at the beach and the creatures she finds imprisoned in the rocks.
Both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give excellent performances as slightly damaged figures eventually emboldened by their relationship. Winslet is especially good as the consistently cool Mary, who appears to have lost enthusiasm for anything but her work, a misanthrope refusing to insert herself into the world. In an understated performance Winslet is credible as the expert paleontologist with both an intellectual and practical understanding of her subject that eludes most others in the film and the scenes in which Mary uncomplainingly scowers the beach or deals with her disapproving mother are full of the texture of a quiet but disillusioned life.
Winslet’s approach to her character’s passion is equally muted, framed in hesitancy and fear of rejection that is sympathetically rendered especially in the hints of a previous relationship with Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth that has left Mary hurt and wary of similar intimacy. The only time she allows Mary to abandon herself is during the sex scenes so even at the end the character has retained much of her desire for control of her own life, admirably and perhaps stubbornly refusing to define herself through the higher-class woman she attracts.
Ronan’s character (though a more recognisable period drama cipher) takes a far larger turn during the film developing from a near-silent young bride who, it is suggested, may have recently lost a baby with her bossy and insensitive husband Roderick (James McArdle), to a sprightly and contended presence. Ronan is very good in showing both extremes and while Charlotte’s character has relatively little depth or expansiveness in comparison to Mary, the development from tremulous and pale figure to society hostess is a convincing one.
The relationship between the two women has a coming-of-age dynamic as the older Mary engages with the far younger Charlotte – a notion reflected in the age gap between Mary and Elizabeth – but while the sex is naturalistic and graphic the day-to-day romance lacks the impulsive chemistry and tender intimacy that existed between Johnny and Gheorghe in God’s Own Country – although fans will be delighted to see Alex Secareanu in a cameo as a doctor.
Ammonite is in many ways a conventional period drama with bonnets, big skirts and dissatisfied women looking for love in a world of male prosperity. And while its central relationship intends to diversify the genre, it is the presence of a truly independent pioneering woman that sets this film apart, revealing one of the many female researchers who helped to advanced scientific study but have been all but written out of history.