Tuesday, May 04, 2021


Francis Lee: Ammonite (GB 2020) with Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison.

Ammonite / Ammonite.
    GB/AU © 2020 The British Film Institute / British Broadcasting Corporation / Fossil Films Limited. PC: See-Saw Films. P: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Fodhla Cronin O'Reilly.
    D+SC: Francis Lee. DP: Stéphane Fontaine – colour – 1,85:1 – source format: Redcode RAW 6K, 7K, 8K – master format: 2K – release: D-Cinema. PD: Sarah Finlay. Cost: Michael O'Connor. Hair and makeup: Ivana Primorac. VFX: One Of Us. VFX: Dupe VFX. M: composers: Dustin O'Halloran, Volker Bertelmann. M supervisor: John Boughtwood. S: Wave Studios. ED: Chris Wyatt. Casting: Fiona Weir. Calligraphy: Deborah Hammond.
    Soundtrack selections:
– Johann Strauss (Vater) : Gesellschaftwalzer Op. 5 (1827)
– Clara Schumann : Romanze a-Moll für Klavier (1853), perf. Saoirse Ronan at the clavichord [tbc].
– Peter Gregson : Aria for solo cello in D Minor.
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning
Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison
Fiona Shaw as Elizabeth Philpot
Gemma Jones as Molly Anning
James McArdle as Roderick Murchison
Alec Secăreanu as Dr. Lieberson
Claire Rushbrook as Eleanor Butters
    Loc: Lyme Regis, Dorset. – Kent, Surrey, London.
    120 min
    Festival premiere: 11 Sep 2020 Toronto International Film Festival
    US premiere: 13 Nov 2020.
    British online premiere: 26 March 2021.
    Finnish festival premiere: 7 May 2021 Season Film Festival (Riemukupla).
    Distributed in Finland by Cinema Mondo with Finnish / Swedish subtitles by Anna Hiltunen / Joanna Erkkilä.
    Corona security: max 10 capacity, face masks, distancing, hand hygiene.
    Viewed at a press screening at Kino Engel 1, Helsinki, 4 May 2021.

Ammonites (ammonoids) are a group of extinct marine mollusc animals. They are excellent index fossils to link rock layers to specific geologic time periods. Their fossil shells usually take the form of planispirals, although there are some helically spiraled and nonspiraled forms. (Data edited from the Ammonoidea article in Wikipedia).

Mary Anning (1799–1847) "was an English fossil collector, dealer, and palaeontologist who became known around the world for finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in the county of Dorset in Southwest England. Anning's findings contributed to changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the Earth". "Anning searched for fossils in the area's Blue Lias and Charmouth Mudstone cliffs, particularly during the winter months when landslides exposed new fossils that had to be collected quickly before they were lost to the sea. Her discoveries included the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton; the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons; the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany; and fish fossils. Her observations played a key role in the discovery that coprolites, known as bezoar stones at the time, were fossilised faeces, and she also discovered that belemnite fossils contained fossilised ink sacs like those of modern cephalopods." "It has been claimed that Anning's story was the inspiration for the tongue-twister 'She sells seashells by the seashore,' but there is no evidence for this. " (From the Mary Anning article in Wikipedia).

Synopsis from the press notes: " In the 1840s, acclaimed self-taught palaeontologist Mary Anning works alone on the wild and brutal Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis. The days of her famed discoveries behind her, she now hunts for common fossils to sell to rich tourists to support herself and her ailing widowed mother. When one such tourist, Roderick Murchison, arrives in Lyme on the first leg of a European tour, he entrusts Mary with the care of his young wife Charlotte, who is recuperating from a personal tragedy. Mary, whose life is a daily struggle on the poverty line, cannot afford to turn him down but, proud and relentlessly passionate about her work, she clashes with her unwanted guest. They are two women from utterly different worlds. Yet despite the chasm between their social spheres and personalities, Mary and Charlotte discover they can each offer what the other has been searching for: the realization that they are not alone. It is the beginning of a passionate and all-consuming love affair that will defy all social bounds and alter the course of both lives irrevocably. " (Synopsis from the press notes).

AA: In the beginning of Francis Lee's Ammonite, I thought for a fleeting while about Céline Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady in Fire, shot on the other side of La Manche / the English Channel. The films do share certain elements: desolation and solitude in the formidable presence of the Atlantic Ocean, and a forbidden love story between two women, but there the affinities end, although even here we meet a young woman unenthusiastic about marriage and a portrait secretly created about that woman by another woman who falls in love with her.

Mary Anning, however, is not a painter, but a hard-working fossilist, trained since childhood by her father to observe tides and storms that reveal Jurassic discoveries from the marine beds in the cliffs at Lyme Regis. Already in childhood Anning has learned to record her findings via drawings and written notes. The drawings are so accomplished that they are admired in leading scientific circles, as are of course the fossils themselves. Anning belongs to the generations whose discoveries start to undermine received notions of Creation before Darwin. Anning becomes a revered name among specialists, and her fossils are on display at the British Museum and other leading institutions, but no public credit is given. Instead names of the gentleman buyers are credited.

We witness an age of multiple discrimination. Mary Anning is a woman, and women started to get entrance into scientific societies only in the 20th century. She is not a member of the ruling elite, but a small enterpreneur living in circumstances comparable with a poor farmer or the working class. She is devoutly religious, but also a Congregationalist, a Dissenter, emphasizing the importance of education for the poor. She has learned to read and write at a Congregationalist Sunday school. Only members of the Church of England are accepted in official England.

Although Anning is a leading pioneer in the field of natural sciences, she lives a marginal life in hardship and poverty, and when she visits the British Museum, she is not welcomed as a hero and a special guest of honour but just a regular member of the crowd. In Ammonite, there is a strong current of anger based on this situation of injustice and exploitation. Kate Winslet channels this powerfully in her performance. She is very convincingly physical in her role of the pathbreaking explorer constantly battling the elements.

Mary lives with her mother Molly (Gemma Jones) who runs their curiosity shop. Molly is the mother of ten children, only two of whom have survived. Eight special figurines she washes, polishes and nurtures every night. Gradually we realize that they represent her eight deceased children. It is perhaps not surprising that Mary, having witnessed that and having displayed scientific talent since the age of 10, has not been interested in marriage.

That interest cannot possibly be stirred by visitors such as the geologist Roderick and his wife Charlotte Murchison (James McArdle and Saoirse Ronan), an upper-class couple where the woman has no independent position. Charlotte suffers from postnatal depression made particularly severe because her baby was stillborn. When Charlotte approaches Roderick for tenderness and sex, he turns her down because it's too soon to try to have another baby.

Roderick admires Mary and asks her to be a companion for Charlotte while he continues his geological tour. A mutual antipathy between the women gradually turns to disinterest, but when Charlotte, ordered to swim in the freezing ocean, catches pneumonia, Mary heals her tenderly with Philpot's Salve from a knowledgeable neighbour, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw). The tender care leads to growing affection, and the women fall in love.

The account of intimacy, looks, smiles, touching, and sex, is tender and affectionate, painted in warm and vibrant colours. In a world hostile to women, Mary and Charlotte find each other despite being from extremely different circumstances, and are no longer alone in the world. They are able to unlock in each other a hidden potential of passion. Although the characters of the film are based on reality, the account of their private lives and affairs is fictional.

Affectionate details include Mary offering Charlotte fish pie (what we in Finland call kalakukko), Mary drawing Charlotte's portrait, and Charlotte playing Clara Schumann on the clavichord. From her loving look to another woman's baby we realize her need to become a mother herself one day.

Stéphane Fontaine's cinematography is eloquent in the rough and the smooth. This is a film of powerful contrasts, such as the freezing seafront weather vs. the warm tenderness of the human skin. The colour palette is vibrant and evocative. The digital cinematography in very high definition achieves a strong sense of the tangible and the physical.

P.S. In January 2022 news reached the press about the most complete fossil ever found in the UK of the "sea dragon" ichtyosaur. Mary Anning was credited as the first finder of the creature.

P.S. Gemma Conroy (The New York Times, 1 Nov 2022): the first complete ichtyosaur fossil, most likely discovered by Mary Anning, was destroyed in a Nazi air raid in May 1941. Now three copies have been found in the world's museums.

Txllxt TxllxT : "London – Cromwell Road – Natural History Museum 1881 by Alfred Waterhouse – Mary Anning, the Fossil Woman". 11 Sep 2010. From: Wikipedia.

Henry de la Beche (1796–1855) : Duria Antiquior. Famous watercolor by the geologist Henry de la Beche depicting life in ancient Dorset based on fossils found by Mary Anning. 1830. Collection: National Museum Cardiff. Source: http://www.sedgwickmuseum.org/education/ideas_and_evidence.html . Public domain. From: Wikipedia. Please do click on the image to enlarge it.

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