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Some of the most expressive closeups in “Ammonite,” Francis Lee’s intelligent and passionate new drama, are not of faces but hands. They belong to the 19th century English paleontologist Mary Anning (played by Kate Winslet), and they’ve been coarsened by years of hard work and exposure: We notice their roughness when she’s peeling potatoes for a stew, sketching in her notebooks by firelight or scooping up rocks from the beach at Lyme Regis, England, the small Dorset town she calls home. Before long, those same hands will clutch the waist of another woman, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and pull her close with a raw, tremulous hunger that says more than any whispered endearments could.
That moment is explosive in its physicality, and it’s entirely of a piece with the rough, overwhelming physicality of this movie. Lee is making the earthiest, muckiest love stories around: His superb first feature, “God’s Own Country” (2017), takes place on the wind-battered moors of North Yorkshire, England, where two young male shepherds tend their flock and soon fall into a hot, muddy embrace. “Ammonite,” set more than a century earlier and loosely drawn from real-life figures and events, is no less elemental in impact.
Mary is a gruff, stolid woman who treasures her isolation and prefers manual labor to chitchat. She’s like a creature of the earth, a veritable human hermit crab. One of the first things we see her do is climb up the side of a cliff, pry loose a large stone and then go sliding down to the bottom, landing with a hard thud. The stone shatters to reveal a fossilized relic within: an ammonite, an extinct mollusk with a telltale spiral pattern. One of nature’s more bewitching design elements, it’s also a symbol for vertigo, for the dizzying emotional freefall in which Mary will soon find herself.
And “Ammonite,” rough and tactile as it is, doesn’t shy away from abstraction or from the metaphorical implications of Mary’s profession. A self-taught scientist, she runs a tourist shop with her ailing mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), selling seashell trinkets and tchotchkes. (Anning is said to have inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore.”)
But her real ardor is for digging up large rocks and, with exquisite care and expertise, exposing the beautiful relics within. You could say the movie practices its own brand of emotional paleontology, excavating Mary’s long-buried secrets and slowly revealing them, layer by fascinating layer.
The chisel being applied is Ronan’s Charlotte, whose arrival in Mary’s life, sometime during the 1840s, initially seems more burden than blessing. Her wealthy husband, Roderick Murchison (an unctuous James McArdle), is an aspiring geologist who has come from London hoping to shadow Mary on one of her fossil hunts; Charlotte, depressed following a miscarriage, has been prescribed a regimen of briny sea air and ocean bathing. But Roderick, eager to be temporarily rid of his wife, pays Mary to take care of Charlotte for several weeks — a task to which the older woman reluctantly consents, even though she already has another patient, her ailing mother, to look after.
Fortunately, Charlotte improves quickly, thanks in part to a salve that Mary applies with practiced skill. But the truest remedy may well be Mary herself. Despite some initial friction and more than a few desperate tears, Charlotte begins accompanying her caretaker on her daily excursions to the beach. She helps Mary with her work, which proves fascinating and energizing. The sea and the air do their part, as does an attentive village doctor (a charming Alec Secareanu, one of the leads in “God’s Own Country”) who invites Mary and Charlotte to a recital one evening and inadvertently brings them to an emotional point of no return. The moment of consummation is shocking, thrilling and unprotracted; here, as in Lee’s earlier film, there’s a jagged abruptness to the carnality, as if the characters know their stolen moments of pleasure will hold their larger problems at bay for only so long.
And the central problem in “Ammonite” is not easily identified, let alone solved. The obvious differences in age, class, personality and physique that separate these two women are also what make them, in many ways, an ideal match. While Mary goes about her daily labors, we get contrasting closeups of Charlotte’s hands, doing things like playing the piano and embroidering a handkerchief. Her fine-boned delicacy awakens a natural protectiveness in Mary, causing her gruff demeanor to soften. Ronan’s performance grows steadily more luminous as Charlotte’s melancholia recedes and her natural vigor and lust for life reemerge. Mary is captivated by that vigor; she also recognizes that it’s at odds with her own dour temperament and her chronic reluctance to let the outside world in.
“I feel I’m at a great disadvantage,” Mary says, in one of the few moments when she feels compelled to speak. She’s more used to communicating nonverbally, with a hard, flinty stare or an uncomfortable pause, and every one of her silences becomes freighted with meaning in Winslet’s extraordinary performance. Walking with a heavy gait, often in a thick coat and a plain plaid skirt (among the fine costumes designed by Michael O’Connor), she moves through the picture with the guarded defiance of a woman who has had to fight for every penny and scrap of recognition and is unwilling to yield an inch. It’s fitting that this is Winslet’s finest screen acting since “Mildred Pierce,” in which she played another working-class heroine who refused to let anyone else dictate terms.
Like Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” “Ammonite” imagines a fleeting coastal utopia where two women can fall in love, far from the prying eyes and arrogant entitlements of men. And like Sciamma, Lee is intent on highlighting the remarkable accomplishments of women, especially those that have been reclaimed, ignored and erased by men throughout history. It’s no surprise that the opening shot of this movie (the cinematography is by Stéphane Fontaine) is of a maid scrubbing the floor of a museum, who is quickly shunted aside so that one of Mary’s relics can be moved in and displayed under a man’s name.
Although the story is rooted in history, the romantic bond at its heart is largely a matter of interpretive license. While the real Murchison was a close friend of Anning’s (and eventually became a geologist herself), it’s unclear whether the two women were lovers. But “Ammonite,” a work of art rather than science or history, has no qualms about departing from the known record — and does so with wit, beauty and a modernism that feels all the more bracing in this Victorian context. It’s telling that, as articulated by a woman from Mary’s past (a perfect Fiona Shaw), the main obstacle to the couple’s happiness isn’t neighborhood gossip or the social stigma of homosexuality; it’s Mary herself, her unwillingness to compromise or cede control.
And it’s this insight that reveals “Ammonite” for what it ultimately is: less a sweeping, transcendent tale of forbidden love than a wrenching portrait of self-enforced solitude, of a woman who has spent much of her life finding fulfillment in the inanimate. That’s not to suggest that Mary’s relics are devoid of meaning; far from it. The work that we do, the trinkets and treasures that we hold dear, can become important repositories of memory, feeling, data and history. A fossil is a record of death. Like a lot of other things — a clasping of hands, a dip in the surf, a lover’s embrace — it can also be evidence of a life well lived.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.