A Film Without Conviction or Courage – Review: ‘Ammonite’ (Dir: Francis Lee)

Soft focus, brooding alleyways in Lyme flush with women in bonnets pushing their belongings in carts, Kate Winslet’s phony Dorset accent,   waves beating upon the shore.  More waves beating upon the shore.    This film is so depressingly obvious. And contrived.

The Story

Set in Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast in  Dorset,  South West of England during the 1840s the story centres around a female paleontologist – Mary Anning –  who, although being excluded by reason of her sex from membership of the Royal Geological Society, sold a number of her found specimens to men who then claimed them as their own.  Some ended up in the British Museum, including a particularly fine specimen called Ichthyosaurus.

Ms Anning lives with her mother (Gemma Jones)  in a somewhat dark, gloomy and humble premises right next the shoreline – probably worth millions now!  There are many beautifully photographed candlelit scenes of their cottage, fronted by the shop premises with dirty windows – oh those dirty windows – could someone not have cleaned them? Or perhaps they were a metaphor for.. whatever dirty windows are a metaphor for! We are treated to repeated views of the shop’s  interior shelves lined with Mary’s shoreline specimens that she spends hours cleaning and cataloguing.

That is the most sensible part of the story.  Then it starts to get sillier. A gentleman who has heard of Miss Anning’s scientific knowledge (how since all her work has been stolen and plagiarised we are not sure) arrives at her little shop in Lyme accompanied by his wife (Saoirse Ronan) asking to be allowed to accompany Mary Anning on one of her fossil hunting trips to learn from her work and methods.  She agrees reluctantly, needing the money that he offers.

Later on, this gentleman, bored by his wife’s melancholia (we presume brought on by losing a baby although it isn’t clear) decides to leave her behind and imposes upon Mary Anning’s patience even further by leaving his wife in her care as he goes off abroad on a surveying trip. He leaves.  The two women develop not so much a friendship as a passionate love affair.


Many of the shots are dark, thoughtful, melancholic but staying just the right side of gloomy,  photographs which are themselves unspoken dialogue.  But the storytelling points are so contrived, it’s painful.   In one scene, Miss Anning’s about-to-become-love-interest played by Ronan, falls in feverish and melodramatic fashion into Kate Winslet’s arms having been told to try sea bathing and that it would be beneficial for her condition, which no doubt it might have been, had the girl been able to swim.  Anning summons the Doctor who gives endless instructions about the patient’s care.  When Anning complains that she barely knows the woman who is not her responsibility, she gets a lecture about sisterly duties.

The camera is obsessed with Ronan and why not – she is very photogenic and a good actress, but her character seems to spend at least half of the film in bed, either because of depression or other illness or she’s just asleep or having sex.  Granted that Lyme in the 1840s may not have been the most happening place, but still.

The Jurassic coast is famed for its beauty and is a world heritage site so unsurprisingly it is a sought after region for film makers.

I found this on a website about the town of Lyme Regis:

“…wherever you go in the world if you ask someone if they’ve heard of Lyme Regis there’s a 99% chance they’ll say yes!”

Much of that 99% fame is perhaps down to a young and beautiful Meryl Streep standing on the Cobb in the 1981 film of John Fowles’ novel French Lieutenant’s Woman.

But the subject of Lee’s film, Mary Anning, was actually born there.  She was a true daughter of Lyme.  Plus Anning is a still largely unrehabilitated female paleontologist of which there are not hundreds and hundreds.  She was due a film, but why this one?

This film fails to have the courage of its convictions.  If you are making a story about a female scientist and trying to reclaim for her a place in history, then please do that.  Tear down the appropriated labels in the British Museum, relabel the fossils that should rightly bear her name, that she clawed out of the ground with her own hands.   I read that a schoolgirl in Lyme Regis has started a campaign to have a statue erected in Anning’s honour.   As a female scientist whose work was plagiarised and stolen by the male, patriarchal establishment,  I thoroughly applaud that idea.   In this the schoolgirl has far greater vision than Lee who can’t see any point to his own film that doesn’t involve relationships.

The worst thing a filmmaker could have done for Mary Anning is the very thing the film maker has done – assume her life is of no interest to people unless it centres around a lesbian sex romp.

I have no idea whether Mary Anning had lesbian affairs or not.  I imagine Frances Lee – the film’s writer and director – didn’t know  whether Mary Anning had lesbian affairs either.  We’re talking 1840’s in a tiny fishing village on the edge of the world.  Dorset wasn’t exactly a hotbed of enlightened thinking about same sex relationships back then, or certainly not according to that great Dorset chronicler Thomas Hardy.  But that hasn’t stopped Lee making a lesbian affair the central point of his film.

The Director was quoted in the Evening Standard as saying “I wanted to give Mary Anning a relationship that was worthy of her”.  Sorry I don’t buy that.  How does he presume to know what relationship was worthy or anything about her as a person?  This is fiction.  What he wanted was to sell his film.  And lesbian sex is currently on trend and doing that.  Like the penny pinching ‘fossil hunters’ who procured Anning’s work and passed it off as their own, this is just another form of exploitation.

Don’t serve us up this male gaze stuff, Mr. Lee,  and pretend to be rehabilitating Mary Anning.   And in the final irony, don’t write a script accusing another of the female characters of disrespecting Anning’s life.