“Ammonite” will be compared to last year’s critical favorite “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” and not unfairly. The two films take place on either side of the year 1800 on either side of the English Channel; both focus on a pair of women in period dress falling slowly but assuredly in love. But where Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait” was a meeting of two equally strong personalities, “Ammonite,” written and directed by Francis Lee, is more properly a character study of a singular woman, as played by a remarkable actress.
Not that the performer opposite Kate Winslet is any kind of shrinking violet. Since arriving with spooky presence in “Atonement” (2007), Saoirse Ronan has proved over and over again that she is one of our nimblest, most thoughtful actors. But the drama of “Ammonite” takes place largely within Winslet’s Mary Anning as this dour, shut-down, middle-aged scientist learns to breathe once more.
I called Anning a scientist, which she surely was, even if the men of the Geological Society of London erased her name and took credit for her fossil discoveries. Born in 1799, Anning lived her entire life in Lyme Regis, on the Dorset coast, where at the age of 11 she dug out of the cliffs the first complete icthyosaurus skeleton ever discovered; two plesiosaurs and a pterosaur eventually followed. The movie begins with Anning living in isolation with a feeble-minded mother (Gemma Jones), spending mornings on the rocky beaches in waders and pantaloons and afternoons selling fossils to tourists for food money. The days are gray, the waves are gray. Mary is gray.
Into this monochrome comes an unctuous upper-class geologist, Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), and his young bride, Charlotte (Ronan), the latter traumatized by an implied miscarriage and the smothering burdens of being a Victorian wife. Left behind in Lyme Regis when her husband leaves on a world expedition, Charlotte follows Mary on her beach rounds, picking at stones and generally being useless. Why is Anning so curt with the young woman? Why is she so uneasy around an older woman, Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), who’s the local apothecary? The isolation that enfolds Mary like a woolen wrap seems as much psychological as geographical. A scene at a concert recital, the local bourgeoisie leaving Mary out of their circle while the predatory Philpot welcomes Charlotte in, only enforces Anning’s alienation. A modern onlooker might wonder if she’s on the spectrum.
Charlotte Murchison and Elizabeth Philpot were real people, too; all three were acquaintances and there the record stops. Murchison and Philpot had fossil discoveries to their credit as well. But in “Ammonite” — named for a fossil mollusk as tightly coiled as she — Mary Anning is the beautiful mind stunted by a male scientific establishment and exiled from society by her gayness. The scenes in which she and Charlotte warm to each other, first in spirit and then in flesh, are the film’s most touching, with Ronan’s girlish Charlotte lit up with naive daring and Winslet’s Mary coming out of her shell with slow, astonished disbelief. The sex scenes, when they arrive, are unexpectedly, passionately frank, and the characters and the film alike seem stunned in their aftermath. It’s not a movie that has figured out how to end.
Writer-director Lee made his mark with “God’s Own Country” (2017), about two men in love in modern Yorkshire, and with his second feature he widens his view on the repressions of British society to take in women and history. “Ammonite” is careful and steady in its telling, and rather obvious in places: a shot of a moth beating its wings under a glass to compare to the trapped young wife, for example. Some have called the movie cold. But it’s the people in it who are cold — pinched lives unwilling to imagine the beasts beneath the ground on which they walk or behind the eyes of their fellow humans. Lee lets us indulge in a belated outrage for a woman denied her place in science and history, but it’s Winslet’s carefully calibrated empathy toward Mary Anning that keeps us rapt. Watching this woman emerge from the stone encasing her is discovery enough.
Written and directed by Francis Lee. Starring Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan. Kendall Square, suburbs. 118 minutes. R (graphic sexuality, some graphic nudity, brief language)