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Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Film review: Ammonite (2021)

After a long wait and much online discussion, the Mary Anning-inspired historic drama Ammonite is finally on general release. As goes the popularisation of palaeontology, Ammonite is something of a big deal: it’s the first film treatment of the iconic 19th-century fossil collector Mary Anning, a rare major feature to focus on genuine 19th-century palaeontology, and - in what might be another first - is a palaeontology-inspired film aimed squarely at adults. It has also, however, been controversial since its announcement for not focusing on traditional aspects of the Mary Anning story, such as her significance to the discovery of Mesozoic marine reptiles, her relationship with palaeontologists of the early 1800s and her tragically short, poverty-stricken existence. Instead, the film invents a narrative about an imagined romance between Anning and another historic figure, the geologist Charlotte Murchison. The appropriateness of this angle and what it means for Anning’s legacy has been the subject of much social media discussion, although the actual release of the film on premium streaming services has not, to my knowledge, generated the same level of debate. Curious to see if all our hopes, fears and general anticipation were worth our time, I recently checked out Ammonite and have come away with a mixed reaction. Is it a good film? I thought so. Is it a good ‘Mary Anning film’? I thought not. Are these answers mutually exclusive? It depends what you want from your Anning cinematic experience.

Let’s talk about the positives first. There is a lot I liked about Ammonite. It’s well-acted, well-directed, and delivers an outwardly strong reflection on sexism and classism in a strongly patriarchal Victorian society. The film is not subtle in its messaging: the opening shots show a maid scrubbing a museum floor being rudely pushed aside by bustling, suited men rushing an Anning-discovered Temnodontosaurus to its cabinet. It does, however, do a commendable job of showing, without preaching about, the contrast between rich and poor and the gulf in privilege that existed, and still exists, between men and women. Anning’s simple clothes, her empty, tired home and shop, as well as the sometimes bleak Lyme Regis coastline contrast well against the wealth, comfort and extravagance of richer characters and establishments. It provides a warts-and-all look at life on the poverty line in the 1840s where Anning and her elderly, poorly mother eat thin vegetable stews, illuminate their home with solitary candles, and several shots show their rough, tattered hands resulting from a lifetime of hard graft. Actors are not prettied up to look miraculously glamorous despite their lifestyle: there's an honest rawness to their appearance and costumes.

The tone of Ammonite is reflected with a sparse musical score and suitably bleak, although not lifeless, colour palette. Anning’s house is the core location of the film, but grubby British mudstone cliffs are its second home. I admit to finding these fossiliferous landscapes a refreshing sight for the setting of a palaeontological drama instead of, as is so often the case in palaeo media, vast deserts or badlands. The ever-present roaring waves and changeable weather of the southern UK coastline are excellently captured, and the cinematography manages to balance the grey colours of the Dorset coast and Anning’s home with stronger hues, especially the blues of Anning’s clothing, and the sea and sky. The film has a washed-out, slightly tired look that doesn’t feel forced, and perfectly suits the rest of the subject matter.

The first act features what most will expect of a Mary Anning picture, showing her looking for fossils in poor weather and clambering up slippery cliffs to excavate nodules containing ammonites. We are not explicitly told when the film is set, but the film’s version of Anning, played by Kate Winslet, imagines her in her later years - so presumably in the early 1840s. Portrayed as an embittered, middle-aged and experienced fossil collector with little time or interest in social graces, she also has a physical presence and resourceful quality entirely atypical for a 19th century female character. It's hard not to see some of this as making Anning the match for any man you'd care to put in her position. She's a woman of few words, wears trousers under her dresses, pees wherever she likes in the field (and then wipes her hands on her clothes), smokes hand-rolled cigarettes and deploys several harsh swears. Although outwardly a cold, embittered character with little patience for others, she is not unlikeable, and Winslet’s portrayal is genuinely excellent, her face showing an unspoken history of sadness, loneliness and world-weariness that needn’t be explained through dialogue. Her performance and frame have a stiffness that is at once both imposing and awkward, and much of what Anning thinks and feels is conveyed through forced stillness and suppressed reaction. It's a terrific performance that has unsurprisingly drawn much praise from critics.

As you’re no doubt inferring, Ammonite is not a breezy, lighthearted film. Nor, in contrast to virtually all other palaeo-inspired motion pictures I can think of, is it a family film. Ammonite has a ‘15’ rating in the UK (equivalent to an ‘R’ in the US), and for good reason: there’s male and female nudity, graphic sex and several strong swears. This is not the film to show your kids the Mary Anning story: it’s a slow, character-driven drama aimed at mature audiences. Although seemingly ruling out large chunks of its potential audience, for science communicators, this is a Good Thing. The last century of palaeo-related cinema can be largely boiled down to people running from animated dinosaurs, and Ammonite is going to draw attention from audiences who have no interest in this sort of thing. There is no shortage of child-friendly Mary Anning media out there, so it's great to have something that will draw the attention of older audiences.

But it’s also on the science communication front that Ammonite is going to prove most divisive. My take on films, TV shows and so on is that we have to rate them based on what the creators set out to do, not what we wanted them to do, and in this sense Ammonite might be free of criticism over its loose take on history. But I think it’s fair to ask whether Ammonite really needed to hang its narrative around Mary Anning at all, such are the liberties it takes with the subject matter. I have two main thoughts on this.

First, for a story about one of the most famous fossil hunters in history, Ammonite is strangely empty of what we might call palaeontological character. I understand that Ammonite is not a Marvel film or Star Trek episode where fans are deliberately fed blink-and-you-miss-them references, callbacks and easter-eggs, but the early 1800s yielded so many iconic specimens, books and palaeoartworks that I was surprised the film was so stripped back of palaeo-based content. Anning’s shop and home are virtually empty of specimens, which runs contrary to just about every fossil collector home, shop and lab I've ever been to. Invariably, such locations are full of stuff related to extracting and understanding extinct life: field gear, books, fossils, notes, rocks, unprepared specimens and other curios. I think the emptiness of her home is meant to stress her poverty, but the effect was that she looked more like she was a hobbyist fossil collector rather than the grandmother of palaeontology.

This bareness has another effect: it denies the sense that Anning made any multiple significant discoveries. We see Anning collect and prepare an ichthyosaur skull at one point but, other than this, a bookending cameo by the famous Temnodontosaurus fossil Anning found with her brother (the first ichthyosaur studied by scientists) and a quick shot of Anning sketching the Plesiosaurus dolichodeirus holotype from memory, there’s really nothing to represent her remarkable contribution to marine reptile palaeontology. It’s these discoveries that Anning is primarily remembered for and their absence will be noticed by anyone familiar with her history. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone watching Ammonite without prior knowledge of Anning would really think she was anyone especially important. By the end of the first act, Ammonite is basically done with palaeontology, and the rest of the narrative could easily be about any other downtrodden 19th century female professional you care to name or invent.

Second, yes, it’s time to address that topic: the decision to make Anning a character in a fictionalised romance rather than tell a component of her real history. Ammonite is only a Mary Anning film in the loosest sense: it has the right character names, the right location and the basic Anning backstory, but that's about it. Along with speculating about Anning’s sexuality (we have no data at all on Anning’s romantic interests), her character is also changed. We don’t know much about Anning’s personality, but historic notes - such as those cited in Deborah Cadbury’s 2000 book The Dinosaur Hunters - imply a very different character to that invented for the film. Quotes about later-life Anning describe a patient, kindly woman grateful for shop patrons, for example, which is a world apart from the icy, blunt Anning of Ammonite. The biggest historic casualty of the film, however, is not Anning, but her love interest, Charlotte Murchison. In real life, Murchison was a well-travelled, experienced geologist of great professional inspiration and importance to her geologist husband - the eventual Director-General of the British Geological Survey, Roderick Murchison. She was also a trailblazer for women’s rights in science, protesting against Charles Lyell for the right for women to attend scientific lectures. Ammonite’s Charlotte Murchison, in contrast, is a character defined only by her relationships with other people: a lonely wife grieving over the loss of her child, left with Anning in the hope that she may take up geology as a hobby. It’s certainly true that Ammonite is about an intelligent, important woman being brushed under the carpet of society, but there’s a meta quality to this that wasn’t expected.

It’s in this area that I find myself most conflicted about Ammonite. On the one hand, Ammonite’s narrative and the real stories of Anning and Murchison draw similar conclusions about sexism and classism, so the deviations from history might not matter too much: the imagined and real history meet, more or less, to impart the same message. On the other, the real Anning story is not only unique (and thus more interesting than any imagined drama) but also much more powerful. Women like Anning and Murchison literally changed the course of history and their lives couldn’t be more relevant to modern concerns: feminism, societal inequality, the power of rich white men, and the issue of privilege are all inescapable truths of their biographies. Ammonite replaces some of these with an equally important cause - LGBTQ representation - but - to our knowledge - this was never Anning’s fight, and it’s strange that she’s now been pushed as a figurehead in this movement too. As Riley Black mused in her excellent piece on Ammonite last year, we are at risk of asking Anning to carry too much, and thus diluting her real importance and legacy. The irony of Ammonite, a film that seemingly celebrates Anning, sidelining her scientific and intellectual achievements so it can impress its own narrative and significance onto her life is not lost on me. It’s not quite the same as writing her out of history like so many Victorian gentlemen scientists, but it’s certainly another example of people using her reputation for their own ends.

And that’s where Ammonite leaves me: a commendable historic drama with some great attention to characterisation and some great performances, levelled against disappointingly little interest in the richness of its source material and a confused, perhaps even self-defeating relationship with its principal characters. For all this, I still think Ammonite is, on balance, a Good Thing. While not delivering the sweeping Anning biopic many palaeontologists and historians might want to see, it still promotes - however contrarily in light of historic facts - the importance of women in science, gives a general idea of who Mary Anning was, and may spark some important thoughts and conversations among more interested audience members. And, lest we forget, behind all the talk about representation and legacies is a good film that can be watched and enjoyed, and it's OK to switch our brains off from time to time. Ultimately, whether you should check out Ammonite will depend on what you want from this picture. If you can get past the fact that Ammonite is little more than watered-down palaeontological fanfiction (perhaps the most niche genre in cinema), you may enjoy it. If you're unable to leave your scientific and historical brain at the door, this might not be for you. Whichever of these opposing views you land on, I agree with you.

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