Following the critical acclaim of 2017’s GOD’S OWN COUNTRY, Francis Lee returns with AMMONITE which came out of TIFF ’20 with a deafening amount of buzz. The Drama written and directed by Lee, stars Kate Winslet as reputed British Paleontologist Mary Anning. Having made several famous discoveries hunting fossils in her career, wealthy tourist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) finds Anning and tasks her with taking his wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) under her wing. She accepts reluctantly out of financial need. While the two women have very little in common coming from entirely different worlds, they realize they might just be what the other has been missing.
We had the pleasure of chatting virtually with Lee about AMMONITE, which sees its release now theatrically, as we enter Awards Season.
Lee was drawn to story of Mary Anning in that he sees many parallels between her and him.
Lee: “The thing that struck me was discovering Mary Anning is that here was this working class woman born into a life of poverty with little or no education, in a deeply-patriarchal and class-ridden society. And through her own ingenuity, courage, strength and will to survive, she became one of the leading Paleontologists of her generation. There were just some parallels there to my own life. I’m not saying I’m as brilliant as Mary Anning was at all, but I grew-up working class in very rural Northern Britain and I didn’t have a great education. I always knew from quite an early age I would’ve loved to write, direct or do both couldn’t see how I could get into such a rarified profession. I couldn’t afford film school or know anyone like me who did what I wanted to do. So there were just some subtle parallels there.”.
There’s been a good bit of controversy surrounding AMMONITE. Anning‘s family even has refuted the idea that she ever had been in a relationship with a woman, calling Lee‘s re-imagination of her, “pure Hollywood”. Lee comments about his decision to portray her in a same-sex relationship.
Lee: “I’m very obsessed with intimate human relationships and I like to explore them because I’m still figuring out how to manage them myself. I wanted to bring a relationship into this world of her’s. I wanted to respect and elevate her in a way that hadn’t happened when she was alive because all these men who came to buy her fossils re-appropriated her work for themselves. In this time, men owned women and giving her a relationship with a man wouldn’t feel equal. And of course there never was any evidence that Mary had a relationship with a man, but there was evidence she had friendships with women. So I felt giving her a relationship with a woman felt so much more respectful and equal in that sense.”.
We ask Lee about the importance of “unstraightening Queer History” which is something explored both in GOD’S OWN COUNTRY and AMMONITE.
Lee: “What’s so fascinating about this debate that’s seemed to have happened, which I didn’t quite realize would be such a big debate. It made me look at history, who records it and how they record history. And it led me down the path to think that history is subjective. It is created. It isn’t a science in a sense. It was really interesting to see where there is absolutely no concrete evidence of a same-sex relationship, historians presume heterosexuality when we know people could be gay, lesbian, asexual or bisexual. The lack of investigation or thought of thinking through what an individual or historical figure could have been or experienced I found really fascinating.”.
“What was interesting about AMMONITE is that there was no evidence that Mary ever had a relationship with a man, there was evidence of her having friendships with women. And there are a couple of historical fiction novels about Mary Anning and in one of them, it does suggest she had a relationship with a man and nobody complained. And it did make me really think where we are at in society where we need absolute concrete proof for anything that is not considered to be hetero-normative. I just felt to myself whether it’s about my character’s working class or how they identify with their sexuality, these characters have had their voices taken away from them and we haven’t heard from them.”.
“Queer Histories haven’t been recorded because a lot of the time it’s been hidden, illegal, with big consequences if you identified with the LGBTQ community. Often people from the community don’t have children, so their stories aren’t passed-on generationally. So for me it feels like if I can give voices to people or situations that have been overlooked or neglected, then I’m very happy to do that.”.
We ask about Winslet and Ronan becoming involved the with project.
Lee: “It’s quite a boring story, Will. I thought about who I’d like to be in it. First of all, Kate was top of my list because regardless of what she has been in, there’s always been such a truth and honesty to her performances. She felt like a very natural choice for me. Her agent read the Script and sent it to Kate the same day and said, ‘You have to read this because if you don’t say yes, somebody will take it immediately.’. So Kate came back the next day and said she’d like to do it. Pretty much the same thing happened with Saoirse. She got the Script, read it and rang me up to say she’d like to do it! (laughs) I wish it was more about I was in the supermarket and I bumped into somebody and their wife’s brother’s husband once cleaned for Kate Winslet and sent it to her but it wasn’t like that!”.
“The lovely thing is that this is only my second film. The first movie I did was made for no money whatsoever and not-so-famous actors. Nobody really cared about it when I was making it. What was lovely about this film was getting access to actors who not only are at the top of their game but also are very, very established and famous. And the way in which they wholeheartedly jumped on-board with me and wanted to work with me in a way in which I like to work.”.
Lee elaborates more on how working with Kate Winslet actually got weird.
Lee: “What was brilliant about working with Kate is that we like to work in a similar way. It’s very, very much about research and character building. I worked with Kate four or five months before the shoot one-on-one and we really built this character from scratch from the moment she’s born to the moment we first see her in the Film. We worked through every detail and knew every detail about the Mary we were creating. Kate has a real ability and not every actor does, to really transform herself into being somebody else.”.
“So when we were shooting, I wouldn’t recognize one part of the Kate that I knew in that character. She’s very demonstrative, she’s very physical and she talks with her hands. She’s very open emotionally. One of the things we worked so hard on was stillness, silence and internalized emotion and playing everything with looks, gestures and subtleties. I remember finishing the Film and I hadn’t seen Kate for quite some time because I was in the edits and she was away working. I couldn’t look her in the eye, I couldn’t speak to her because I didn’t know who she was, because of who I’d been looking at for the last eight or nine months was not this person. And I was quite shy. It was difficult to switch from Kate‘s performance as Mary to Kate as a human being. It took me a while to adjust.”.
“The way I see Kate now is in Mary Anning, which is so different from who Kate is. It’s kind of a bit weird. Once on-set, there was a scene she wasn’t in and I was working. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone walking around and looking around. I’m quite private and aware, so I turned to the First Assistant Director and asked ‘Who the fuck is that?’. And he said ‘It’s Kate!’. I literally didn’t recognize her because the only time I’d see her is her as Mary Anning.”.
Following-up on two very well-received films can be a daunting task. We ask Lee what’s next.
Lee: “I am writing and finding writing much slower than normal because of COVID, because I find my focus is a bit allover the place. It’s a bit worrying but I’m getting through it. I can tell you that it is a Horror film exploring the same themes I always obsess about – deep human relationships, landscape and loneliness but hopefully with some hope.”.
Elevation Pictures release AMMONITE, now playing in theatres. It will be available on Premium Digital and On-Demand December 4, 2020.
Francis Lee’s latest takes us to 19th-century Dorset. It follows real-life Palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) as she searches the coastline for marine fossils. She spends her days alone, walking the shore and helping at her mother’s tiny shop. Soon she finds her solitary life becomes upended when she’s asked by another Palaeontologist to care for his melancholic wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). In need of the money, she agrees. Gradually, Mary and Charlotte grow close.
Lee does an amazing job shooting the Film in a show-don’t-tell way. There is limited dialogue throughout. Instead, he creates scenes where the weather, objects and characters actions speak volumes. This becomes integral in escalating visually the blossoming love between Mary and Charlotte. In the First Act, Mary is rightfully angry and curt, while Charlotte is mourning the loss of her child. The beautiful coast’s weather parallels their emotions. There are overcast skies and violent waves attacking the coastline. As they spend time together, the clouds clear and the waters calm.
Ammonite is more than a period-Romance. Lee focuses on the work of the incredible Mary and the theme of women taking ownership of their work. During the 19th-century, no Scientific Society would take-in a woman. No matter how hard and astounding Mary’s work was, she was excluded. However, there were male Scientists who were interested in learning from her, being the best in her field. But in the end, they knew she was in need of money. So, they would pay her for what she found and put their names on it. In focusing on this, Lee enhances his Script with a love story involving ownership and class.
Mary loved and lived for her work. It didn’t matter that in doing so, she wouldn’t be part of the upper-class. However, Charlotte is part of the upper-class. It’s here that conflict arises in their relationship. So many times, we have witnessed a forbidden same-sex romance. Although that is at play here, Ammonite focuses on their differing upbringings and that divides them no matter how badly they want to be together. Once again, Lee shows us this instead of telling us. He places his characters on opposite sides of Mary’s glassed sea-creature on display inside the British Museum.
With the talent of Winslet and Ronan in the Film’s lead roles, we are expecting greatness, and they do not disappoint. Winslet is always dynamite. Here, she gives one of her strongest performances. She encapsulates the anger Mary has for having to sell her work and her vulnerability when falling in love with Charlotte. Ronan gives a performance like we’ve never seen from her before. She’s strongest in portraying Charlotte’s grief and her desperation to keep Mary close to her. Their raw emotion feels authentic and honest, especially in their love scenes that are shot meticulously and delicately. And with minimal screen time, Fiona Shaw captivates as a previous love of Mary’s.
While at times it lags a little, this period-Romance which fuses Gender Politics and Classism, is made-up for with stellar performances, particularly by Winslet.