© Tobis Film GmbH

U.K./Australia/U.S.A. 2020

Opening 4 Nov 2021

Directed by: Francis Lee
Writing credits: Francis Lee
Principal actors: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, James McArdle

Of all Mary Anning’s accomplishments to make a movie about, especially considering Victorian England’s many barriers, specifically for women, particularly if poor and uneducated, leave it to a man to depict a friendship between two women so indelicately. Writer-director Francis Lee’s disingenuous screenplay’s characterizations do blatantly ignore facts: Roderick and Charlotte Murchison traveled together extensively as British geologists of standing; her sketches were included in Roderick’s published works, and Charlotte influenced her husband to focus on geology. Hence, on a trip along England’s southern coast, she fossil-hunted with Mary Anning, who was, in reality, ten years younger than Charlotte. (Anning was twenty years younger than Elizabeth Philpot.) Lee barely alludes to men’s influence/help: Richard Manning taught daughter Mary fossil-hunting; her brother first found the 4-foot ichthyosaur skull (she unearthed the body); Mary read published essays by the family’s Congregationalist pastor, Reverend James Wheaton, that urged the study of science, relational to God.

Set in 1840s England, a time of food shortages and industrial revolutionizing, Mary (Kate Winslet) and Molly (Gemma Jones) live a near-mute existence one-step from poverty in rugged Lyme Regis, Dorset. Mary’s daily trolls for fossils along beaches, beneath dangerously questionable hanging cliffs, provide salable “curios” that appeal to rich tourists visiting the area and their shop. One day, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) enters with broody Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in tow and pays premium for a private tour of the beach with Mary. Before leaving for a 6-week tour of the Continent, he again finagles Mary into allowing Charlotte tag along on her “walk outs,” again with good compensation. They get off to a rocky start, until Charlotte’s health requires more care; Molly immediately demands that her daughter write the husband for more money. After getting soothing salve from estranged friend Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), Dr. Lieberson (Alec Secǎreanu) is pleased with Charlotte’s recuperative progress. All the same, she stays on with the Annings, whence Lee’s speculative affair takes place.

The cast is impressive: Kate Winslet palpably portrays Mary’s strength of character, just as her eyes communicate what Mary misses words for, e.g., Winslet and Gemma Jones brilliantly convey the hierarchy, and friction, embedded in the mother/daughter relationship. James McArdle/Roderick Murchison disingenuousness is maddening; Fiona Shaw/Elizabeth subtleness in physical/eye movements says much, e.g., her observance of Mary when she purchases salve for Charlotte. Saoirse Ronan/Charlotte seems a well-suited match for fretful, languishing suspension, and, simpering ardor and absorbed enthusiasms.

Filmed on location in Lyme Regis, Dorset, Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography is toned-down, grayed to reflect the period, place and people of dismal 19th-century England. Scenes were shot sequentially to boost the cast absorption into characters’ psyches; the Lyme Regis Museum (formerly the Philpot Museum) director, David Tucker, was consulted, but only re scientific accuracies in Ammonite. Likewise, Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran’s music pitch, in tonality and atmosphere, is noteworthy; Sarah Finlay, production design, Chris Wyatt, editing.

Mary Anning irrevocably changed men’s thinking about science, the scientific interrelatedness with prehistoric life, the Earth’s formation, and the sea’s influence prior to her 1847 death. As well, her paleontological finds put Lyme Regis on the world map forever. Perhaps someday, author Tracy Chevalier’s (Girl with a Pearl Earring) novel about Anning, Remarkable Creatures, will be made into a film; that book does Anning, and fossils, justice. Ammonite is, though, a starting point. (Marinell Haegelin)

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