How Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan’s passionate romance ‘Ammonite’ is based in history
“Ammonite,” written and directed by Francis Lee, was one of the most anticipated films on this year’s festival circuit. It sparked controversy and conversation even before a frame of footage had been shot when it was first announced in 2019 that Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan would be starring in a 19th century romantic drama about real-life paleontologist Mary Anning and geologist Charlotte Murchison. Released to theaters Nov. 13 by Neon, the company still riding high off its best picture Oscar win for “Parasite,” the movie is now available on premium VOD.
The film was to premiere at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, which was canceled because of the pandemic and then the Telluride Film Festival, also canceled. It eventually did first play to virtual audiences as part of the Toronto International Film Festival and then as part of the London Film Festival.
Anning lived from 1799-1847 and was largely unrecognized in her lifetime, with others often taking credit for fossils she had uncovered. Now a series of rooms are named for her in London’s esteemed Natural History Museum, which houses some of her most remarkable discoveries, key to our early understanding of the prehistoric world.
When Lee learned of Anning’s story, how she worked in relative obscurity on the hardscrabble southern coast of England, he felt a deep and personal connection to her.
“There was something in Mary’s story, a working-class woman trying to make her way,” said Lee, “but what she was really, really good at and really skilled at, she couldn’t get up the ladder in terms of her gender and her background. And that felt quite pertinent to me.”
Lee made his debut with 2017’s “God’s Own Country,” a romance between two men on a farm in Yorkshire, the region in northern England where Lee is from. (Actor Alec Secareanu has a role in “Ammonite,” while Josh O’Connor can be seen as Prince Charles on “The Crown.”) Lee had long wanted to write and direct but didn’t see a path into the film industry for someone with his background.
After training and working for a time as an actor, he returned to the north and took a job as a manual laborer in a junkyard. It was while working there that he wrote the script for “God’s Own Country,” which would win Lee a director prize at Sundance, earn a BAFTA nomination and win multiple prizes at the British Independent Film Awards, including best film.
Drawn to Anning’s story as his next project, Lee nevertheless set out to explore her life in an unconventional way. In the film, Murchison is left by her husband in Anning’s care in the hope that Murchison can get over the intense grief she feels over losing a child. It is when the two women are alone together that their relationship blooms.
“I knew I never wanted to write a biopic,” said Lee. “I wanted to look at her and look at a snapshot of her life, something that would tell us everything else about her life without telling her story from when she was born to when she died.”
In his research, Lee found no specific mention of Anning having romantic relationships with men but did discover references to strong, deep friendships with women. When he discovered that Murchison, a notable researcher herself, spent time with Anning, his imagination took flight.
“I wanted to do everything I could to respect [Mary] and elevate her,” said Lee. “And I wanted to give her a relationship that might feel equal to her. And to me that felt like it should be with a woman. And, there was no evidence whatsoever that might not have been the case. I thought it felt [like] a very balanced and respectful decision to make.
“And I quite liked that idea and that these two women would meet,” he said. “And then through that relationship, both as individuals would grow and find strength within that relationship.”
When news first broke of the film’s story and the casting of Winslet and Ronan, there were a number of articles in the British press decrying Lee’s vision of Anning’s life, some with remarks from descendants of Anning herself. Such attention was a shock to Lee.
“My experience of making a film had been very quiet, had been very personal, nobody really cared when I was making ‘God’s Own Country,’ so to suddenly be thrown into this arena before I had even shot one frame of the film and there were articles appearing about it, I found interesting.
“And the idea that me suggesting Mary Anning might have had a relationship with a woman in some way sensationalized or detracted or I was being salacious in some way, I found very odd because none of those things were anywhere near the truth of why I did this,” Lee said. “I did this to be respectful, to highlight not only Mary Anning but women of the day having relationships with each other and also highlighting the terrible situation of patriarchal society. So it was very surprising and odd.”
Yet for Lee, the film is rooted in history. Apart from the intimate relationship between Anning and Murchison and also portraying Murchison as younger than she was when the two met, the film accurately reflects the known details of the two of them. As well, the depiction of the hardscrabble life in Anning’s hometown of Lyme Regis, the cramped quarters and raging sea, is true to life.
“I did extensive research to make sure that not just the facts about Mary but the facts about the day and how people lived their lives and what it meant to have no money in this time,” Lee said. “All of that is very, very factual.
“Charlotte went and stayed with Mary for a period of time,” Lee said. “Mary went to London once and visited the British museum, and it’s supposed that Mary stayed with the Murchisons. Mary was good friends with Elizabeth Philpot, played by Fiona Shaw in the earlier part of her life. And then they kind of had a little bit of a falling out. Mary is one of 10 kids, eight siblings died. All of these things are very factual.”
Regardless of how much of the story is based in fact, Winslet and Ronan turn in transfixing performances, creating perhaps the year’s strongest onscreen romance, both for the emotional yearning and passionate release that transpires between Anning and Murchison.
In his review of “Ammonite,” Times critic Justin Chang declared, “this is Winslet’s finest screen acting since ‘Mildred Pierce,’” the 2011 TV miniseries for which she won an Emmy, a Golden Globe and a SAG Award.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play two 19th century Englishwomen who form a lasting bond in writer-director Francis Lee’s superb followup to “God’s Own Country.”
For Winslet, she said, “I think I’ve probably learned more on ‘Ammonite’ than I have on anything else I’ve ever done, to be honest.”
Spending time in the town where the real Anning lived, walking the beaches she walked and learning to dig for fossils where she worked brought the part to vivid life for Winslet. But it was the restraint of emotion that eventually comes forth in intense waves of intimate passion that Lee asked for that provided the biggest challenge.
“I needed someone to have a hand at my back,” Winslet said of Lee’s direction. “I needed to be able to trust when a director is saying to me, ‘Stop doing all this with your hands. No. Nothing on your face. No.’ I would go home some days and think, ‘Did I actually do any acting today? I mean, what the hell have I just done?’ I would really be doubt-ridden most of the time.
“But just emotionally playing someone who was that withheld and that sort of emotionally stunted too, it was almost like Mary had emotional chips missing or something,” said Winslet. “So expressing real affection or envy or jealousy, possession, adoration of somebody, sadness, happiness, these extreme emotions that actors tend to lean on quite a lot, I wasn’t going to be able to do that with Mary Anning because she had never really become comfortable with expressing big emotion for herself.”
Ronan also acknowledged that after exuberant roles such as her performance as Jo March in “Little Women,” the restraint of Murchison in her grief did not come easily.
“I had sort of been on this train of ‘I’m going to be louder and bigger,’” Ronan said of her other roles. “And then all of a sudden I really had to dial it back with Charlotte. And it was tough. I mean, it was tough even just in terms of how much I used my voice, how restricted I had to be in my movements. It was frustrating, but that was the goal as well, for us to feel this sort of tension the whole time.”
For Anning and Murchison, each of the women are depicted as finding in the other something they have been deeply missing: a sense of connection and deeper purpose.
“I don’t think anything is expected of her, even from the very beginning Charlotte has been left there to work with Mary and assist her, and to Mary she’s a nuisance,” said Ronan. ”So there is no role for Charlotte to step into. And out of that comes this sort of liberation from her previous role as a wife and, in her mind, a failed woman who has lost a child.
“What Mary gives her is actually the time to heal herself emotionally, she starts to feel that care and that tenderness from this other person, which she’s been really kind of crying out for for a long time,” said Ronan. “Our Charlotte is one of those people that, as cheesy as it sounds, wants to love and be loved and has a lot of love to give and only needed someone to simply touch her or be intimate with her or care for her body in some way. It ignited something in her that makes her feel like she’s got some worth.”
Late in the film, Anning goes to London. When Murchison makes an offer for Anning to stay in her luxurious home there, leaving behind her difficult life in Lyme Regis, Anning recoils. Later, Murchison finds Anning looking at her discoveries in the Natural History Museum, and there is a moment of quiet recognition between the two of them.
“I find it deeply hopeful,” said Winslet of the film’s ending. “She only knew resilience and she only knew self-worth based on the things that her father had taught her, and this idea that she had been so poorly misjudged by Charlotte as to ever wish for something other than what she had made her feel really misunderstood and let down.
“And that for me spoke to the truth of Mary more than any other scene in the whole film, because Mary Anning, as a woman she was so stoic. She was utterly formidable and remarkably uncomplaining about her lot in life. She made the best of the circumstances that were handed to her. And I admired that more than anything. And so I admire Mary more in taking a stand in the scene with Charlotte at the end than I think I do in any other place in the story.
“Charlotte is brave enough to go and find Mary because she wants her to know that she does see her,” Winslet added. “She does love her and does understand how foolish she was and admitting all of that, silently. And Mary responding in kind her appreciation for Charlotte, loving her enough to want to be with her. It all comes together in that scene. It really struck me when I saw the film much more so than actually shooting the scene itself.”
In creating a passionately romantic story that is nevertheless full of stillness, quiet and restraint, Lee wanted to tell Anning’s story with a speculative twist.
“When I was writing this film, I looked at history and who writes history and the fact that history is also a creative medium,” said Lee. “Where there is no concrete proof, heterosexuality is always presumed. And in my head, I was like, ‘Well then she could have been bisexual, she could have been asexual, she could have been gay.’ And what I wanted to do was look at it within that context, that maybe there was a different way. Maybe she did go down a different path.”
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