Kate Winslet & Saoirse Ronan

Ammonites Review: Here's the True Story of Paleontologist Mary Anning

By Francesca Steele

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet, left) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan, right) in Ammonite


Ammonite, a new film about fossil hunter Mary Anning directed by Francis Lee (the 2017 director of the much-vaunted Land of God), is unhurried in a manner that will not be for everyone. On the other hand, fieldwork was also not essential to the burgeoning science of paleontology in the 19th century.

Collecting fossils can be a slow and sometimes boring business which is probably why so many men of learning – poor, working class, self-taught – have left Anning to do much of the excavation work, and then all credit for the items have been exhibited in London museums.

The opening of the film is also a little slow at times, but it is right to be aware of the labor-intensive nature of this vital work. We meet Anning (Kate Winslet) as she is climbing the cliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset, UK. Her skirts are stuck between her legs and a strong wind whistles by as she tugs at stones that are buried deep in the clay and often tumble down the slope before she has secured something of value. It's a tough, lonely graft.


Back in her studio, she brushes Ammonites and other small fossils for tourists to buy. The 5-meter ichthyosaur skeleton that she excavated when she was only 12 years old has already been transported far into the capital. The bones under glass bear someone else's name. Unlike many of her colleagues, Anning has to earn a living and because of her class and gender, she has no access to the scientific societies that would improve her position.

She lives alone with her mother in crotch in a tiny, ice-cold house. Their life is calm, although crashing waves and violent winds rush around them on the beach and crawl in the cracked windows – Ammonite's sound design is one of the most beautiful features.

On one of those quiet days, Mr. and Mrs. Murchison arrive. Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) is a geologist – in real life he first identified the geological period known as the Silurian System – who wants to learn from Anning. His wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) suffers from a "mild melancholy" that is apparently caused by childlessness.

In reality, Charlotte was friends with Anning, but she was also a lively geologist and in some ways responsible for her husband's successes. Here she is a fragile creature, lonely in her marriage. We see her reaching for a husband who tells her he misses his "funny" wife before leaving her in Lyme Regis to relax while he goes on his European tour and pays the annings to look over her to watch.

Ronan and Winslet do nuanced, career-best work here. Wrapped in their Victorian petticoats and clumsy hats, the dialogue is often painfully sparse, they mostly have to deal with their faces. It would have been easy to overdo it, but instead we are moved by their reluctance – a discreet look of curiosity here, a secret smile there.

Winslet's transformation from rugged loner to passionate lover is particularly good. Initially unhappy about being with a frail, gentle woman, she is surprised by their friendship. She convinced herself that she needed isolation, even enjoying it when in reality she had no choice. Women had to be either owned or alone at the time. This is a story about Victorian misogyny and female friendship more than Anning herself.

From here on, the film radically deviates from the fact. After Anning nursed her new friend back to health after a fever, the two find solace in each other's bodies. The sex scenes are incredibly beautiful, delicately played and filmed, with an emphasis on the power of touch rather than satisfaction. The film really comes to life in these moments, after a laborious start that depicts everyday reality, but initially puts some viewers off.

However, it is not so much the film's pace or infidelity to facts that is most likely to disappoint, but rather the little attention it pays to Anning's actual accomplishments. Anya Pearson, a trustee of Mary Anning Rocks, a charity working to build a statue of Anning in Lyme Regis, praised the portrayal of the “terrible fieldwork,” but says of the film, “I think she uses Anning as a a ship. It could have been two women in this romance. There is actually very little paleontology. "

Anning was born in Lyme Regis in 1799. Her father, a carpenter, supplemented his income by collecting "curios" from the local cliffs and teaching his daughter to do the same. In addition to her childhood discovery of an ichthyosaur, she also found the first full plesiosaur in her twenties. Although today she is sometimes credited with finding dinosaurs, the Anning fossils discovered on the Jurassic Coast were all marine reptiles, a separate prehistoric species.

Paul Barrett of the Natural History Museum in London says, “Mary was an extraordinary fossil collector who found hundreds of scientifically important fossils during a boom in paleontology when she turned from a hobby of people collecting natural curiosities to a science . Previously, relatively little was known about fossils. They usually received supernatural explanations. "

Anning's work helped lay a foundation for Darwin's. "Anning saw these creatures and realized they couldn't possibly have lived within the timeframe suggested by the Bible," says Tori Herridge, paleontologist and co-founder of TrowelBlazers, a website that celebrates the forgotten stories of women in geology. Paleontology and archeology. “She found belemnites, a prehistoric species of squid, and noticed how much their ink pouches resembled those of modern squid, suggesting that one may have evolved from the other. She was a talented analyst with a keen eye for anatomy and fieldwork. "

“Anning wasn't a single pioneer – many of her male and female contemporaries also contributed greatly to these changing notions of how the world was going. But in a funny way, Anning was the only professional because she was actually making a living. Many of her colleagues did this more as a posh hobby, ”she says.

It's a myth that Anning was a loner or underrated in her life, says Herridge. "In a way, her achievement is the fact that she was recognized at the time due to cultural constraints." In 1838, after Anning was penniless after a bad investment, the Geological Society (which did not accept women as members and had previously excluded Anning from a meeting about her own discovery as a plesiosaur) actually granted her an annual pension – a kind of pension that shows the high esteem that she enjoyed.

She also had a lot of friends. It is unlikely that Charlotte Murchison was her lover (and was, in fact, older, not younger, as suggested in Ammonite), but the two exchanged many letters over the years. Indeed, many of Anning's friends were the wives of the men who came to see her – Mary Buckland, for example, the wife of the President of the Geological Society, William Buckland.

Numerous letters between Anning and Murchison, Buckland and Frances Bell, a teenager Anning taught fossil hunting to and on Ammonite Lover was originally thought to be founded, can be read in the Natural History Museum and elsewhere. Contemporaries described Anning as "smart", "a strong, energetic spinster" and "rather satirical". The anti-social person portrayed by Winslet seems to be a far cry from the lively figure that appears at times in the descriptions of her friends.

"I think what is pretty interesting about Anning is that she rarely writes about herself and a lot more about her work," says Herridge. “It's her friends who tell stories about her good sense of humor and so on. And because of that, there's quite a gap between what we really know and what we need to guess, which means we're Anning can imagine to some extent whichever we choose. "

Ammonite will be released in the US on November 13th. The UK release date has yet to be announced. It played at the London Film Festival in October.

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