[Screen It]


(2020) (Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan) (R)

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Drama: A mid-19th century paleontologist ends up falling in love with a married woman who's been left in her care.

It's the mid-19th century and Mary Anning (KATE WINSLET) is a middle-aged paleontologist who lives in the South English coastal town of Lyme Regis where she lives with her mother, Molly (GEMMA JONES). Mary is known for her work in discovering fossils and her reputation has drawn the interest of well-to-do Roderick Murchison (JAMES McARDLE) who's arrived there with his wife, Charlotte (SAOIRSE RONAN).

Roderick wants to learn from Mary who reluctantly allows him to watch her work, but it's not long before he set off on the rest of his European tour, leaving Charlotte in the town in hopes that the proximity to the sea might buoy her spirits, what with them having lost a child recently.

Mary likewise initially wants nothing to do with Charlotte, but ends up caring for her when she comes down with a fever. That attention reignites a spark in Mary that was extinguished when a past lesbian relationship ended, and it's not long before Charlotte comes out of her shell and begins to feel the same way about Mary. As the two enter a secret relationship, it's unclear how things will play out, especially with life and her husband back in London waiting for Charlotte to return.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

A long, long time ago in a stranger's driveway sort of but not really that far away, our dad took us fossil hunting. It was a time when you could get away with picking up some rocks from a person's passageway to their home, splitting them open, and finding some delightful relics of a bygone era. I wasn't exactly sure what we'd find as we briefly played amateur paleontologists near the top of the Massanutten Mountain but we came away with a haul of prehistoric sea creature remnants.

The one thing I definitely wasn't expecting to pick up along the way was a lesbian lover. Then again, I don't think I knew what that was as I was just a geeky 8-year-old boy in the 1970s. But that's exactly what the protagonist unearths in the period drama "Ammonite."

As written and directed by Francis Lee, it's the part-truthful part-fictional look at real-life paleontologist Mary Anning. She was a mid-18th century fossil hunter who, among other things, discovered the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton in the Lyme Regis cliffs of the English channel in Southwest England.

Being both a dissenter and, obviously, a woman, it was likely a tough go for the woman who, at the time, didn't get full credit for her discoveries and wasn't allowed to be part of the Geological Society of London.

That's only hinted at in Lee's film where Kate Winslet portrays the woman as a bitter misanthrope -- perhaps stemming from being overlooked and rejected -- who only seems to put up with her mother (Gemma Jones) because they both share the same house. When not foraging the coastal cliffs for newly revealed rocks, she's otherwise cleaning her finds and selling them to professionals and curious tourists alike.

Accordingly, and wanting to exist alone in her professional work, she's less than pleased when a well-to-do man, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), from London shows up and wants to pay her for the privilege of watching her work.

Things get even worse for Mary when he likewise wants to pay her to allow his withdrawn wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), to accompany her into the salt air in hopes that, like the paleontologist unearthing some ancient find, the missus might find her former self from back before losing a child left her as a shell of who she once was.

Always needing the money, Mary reluctantly agrees only to then have to nurse Charlotte back to life following her coming down with a bad fever after her husband has left her there to convalesce. That caring reignites a spark in Mary that apparently was snuffed out upon her past break-up with another woman, and it's not long before Mary and Charlotte are ripping their clothes off.

While the Murchisons were real and Mary and Charlotte were apparently close, there's nothing to indicate they were lovers in real-life. But that development does feel organic to Lee's version of the story and the two fine actresses make the most of their characters and the overall material.

For Winslet -- who's as good as ever in a purposefully subdued and mostly internal performance -- that's playing a character who's put up emotional shields to contend with all that she's experienced. Ronan -- also quite good -- has the same at the beginning due to having lost a child, but comes out of that and blossoms, all of which both attracts but also seemingly arouses jealousy, to some degree, in her counterpart.

If you enjoy watching two actresses at the top of their game, you'll probably admire what they do here. For those looking for escapism or just some degree of entertainment, I'm not sure this is the offering for you as it's about as bleak and cold -- save for some occasional steamy encounters -- as the stormy coastline where it's set. "Ammonite" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed November 30, 2020 / Posted December 4, 2020

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