Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan Pursue Love and Science in Francis Lee’s Quiet Romance ‘Ammonite’

Lyme Regis, a coastal town in Southern England, is the setting for the unconventional Victorian-era love story that plays out in romance drama “Ammonite.” Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan portay as a pair of real-life historical figures, 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning and geologist Charlotte Murchison, who find themselves engaged in a passionate, albeit likely fictional, romance. Writer-director Francis Lee (who also wrote and directed “God’s Own Country”) finds his inspiration for the storyline by drawing from speculation on the little known personal life of Anning.

Despite being a rare female scientist of her time who has received recognition in her field, life has not been easy for Mary, who lives unmarried with her elderly mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), a widow who has buried eight of her ten children. Self-taught, Mary spends most days excavating fossils from the coastal cliffs around Lyme Regis. As a young woman, she unearthed an impressive specimen that she sold to the British Museum for a handsome fee. When the story begins, Mary, years past her glory, runs a shop that sells souvenir fossils to tourists. 

It is on an ordinary day that Mary is visited by Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a self-important and enthusiastic geologist who has taken an interest in her work. Although she is initially annoyed by him, she cannot turn his request to take him out on the cliffs in exchange for payment. During that first meeting in the store, Charlotte is also present, but sparks don’t exactly fly. Frail and dressed in black, the younger woman manages to annoy Mary without even saying a word.

Ronan manages to get across that Charlotte is in pain without saying very much. It is revealed that she lost a child, although we never learn the circumstances behind the death. Adding to her misery is the fact that Roderick denies her physical affection. Not only that, he decides to leave her behind in Lyme Regis while he goes back to work. He hires Mary to take Charlotte out with her on her daily excursions, although neither woman is enthusiastic about the arrangement. After a disastrous first day, Charlotte leaves and ends up bathing in the chilly water, turning up at Mary’s the next day with a life-threatening fever. 

After a visit from the local doctor, Lieberson (Alec Secareanu), a handsome foreigner who takes a liking to Miss Anning, Mary steps up and nurses Charlotte back to health. Once the fever breaks, there’s a slow thaw between Mary and Charlotte, and the latter sees her health restored to even better than it was when we first saw her in the beginning. She even comes around to appreciating fossils, as Mary’s dedication to her work inspires her. As the days march on, their connection grows deeper and builds up to a steamy physical relationship.

When it comes to the dialogue, less is more for Lee. While Winslet and Ronan are brilliant actors who are able to convey a lot with just facial expressions and body language (and the viewer can appreciate Lee’s not filling the silences with clichéd platitudes) something seems to be missing. The closest the film comes to an emotional breakthrough is a deep and revealing conversation between Mary and an ex-lover, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), another character based on a real-life palaeontologist. When it comes to Charlotte, we are left with so many blanks that are never filled in. 

Predictably, the domestic life Mary and Charlotte have built together cannot last forever, and it comes to an end when Roderick finally gets around to sending for his wife. But that’s not where the story ends, as Mary later leaves Lyme Regis to visit Charlotte in London, a city that was then in the throes of the industrial revolution. The film has an open-ended conclusion, with one of the women wanting more than the other is willing to give, and it is not the one whom the viewer would think.

Ammonite” releases Nov. 13 in select cities and Dec. 4 on VOD.