Trapped between dour, slate-gray skies and beaches scrubbed to a raw, cadaverous hue by rain and wind, the characters in “Ammonite” are accustomed to a harsh and unforgiving life.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a paleontologist and shopkeeper in the small English seaside town of Lyme Regis in the 1840s, sells artifacts to tourists under the caustic eye of her stolid mother, Molly (Gemma Jones).
For relief, Mary pulls on her boots, packs her tools and combs the rocky shoreline for fossils she can hand over to interested museums for some real money. She is a spinster, sullen yet wry and intelligent, and she knows how to stand up for herself.
This taciturn existence unfolds as unsentimentally as the way Mary hikes up her skirt, climbs up a craggy cliffside and doggedly loosens a rock containing a significant fossil discovery. It suggests someone embittered by self-loathing and disdain for pretentiousness.
But this slow-burning, sometimes bracing movie — the second feature of the writer and director Francis Lee — doesn’t present Mary’s loneliness as the cause of her frustration. Rather, it’s her imprisonment in a world where scientific achievement is exclusive to men and where sexual repression ties women’s tongues and tramples their emotions.
Mary is about to be loosened. The arrival of Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), the pasty, childlike wife of a businessman and amateur geologist (James McArdle), to recuperate from a recent trauma, softens Mary’s heart and the movie’s tone.
Companionship transitions to love and love turns to physical passion. Their passion isn’t picture-perfect. It’s tentative and grappling and explicit. Mary and Charlotte are two frantic strangers groping for self-respect, long-denied pleasure and happiness even if they are aware that it is fleeting.
Mary is skilled at handling more than delicate fossils. As the women grow closer, the picture’s dark, angry visual scheme grows warmer and the movie seems to rediscover love.
Filmed with meticulous and accurate period detail, “Ammonite” weaves elemental magic from Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography.
The film has several weaknesses. It has an unsteady dramatic arc and the plot points after the two women part feel rushed and disconnected. It glides past Mary’s desire to be accepted into the Royal Society and the role of Charlotte is underwritten.
Mary and Charlotte are real historical figures, but the events portrayed in the movie are largely fictitious. Charlotte was a skilled geologist in her own right, a fact not brought out in the movie. And it lacks the bite of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” which came out eight months ago and tells a similar but more provocative story.
Still, “Ammonite” is strengthened by its atmospheric sense of place as much as it is by its performances. So when the brooding Mary surveys the misty beaches and murmurs to Charlotte, “I have my work,” we sense the movie will briefly exchange bitterness for hope.