Producers: Ian Canning, Emile Sherman and Fodhia Cronin O’Reilly   Director: Francis Lee   Screenplay: Francis Lee   Cast: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alex Secăreanu and Fiona Shaw   Distributor: Neon

Grade: B

Writer-director Francis Lee uses a meeting between two historical figures to fashion a nineteenth-century story of same-sex love in his second feature, a simple tale notable for quietly intense performances by its stars, if only intermittent factual accuracy. 

Though Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) actually existed, Lee’s account of how their encounter with one another led to passionate longing is pure conjecture.  Anning was a paleontologist who collected fossils on the Dorset coast adjacent to her village of Lyme Regis but, because of her gender, was ignored in the all-male scientific clubs of the age.  The film argues that her major find—the complete skeleton of an ichthyosaur—was eventually exhibited in the British Museum, but the discovery was attributed falsely to a man.  (The discovery of the skeleton seems actually to have been somewhat more complicated than that, with Mary’s older brother Joseph playing a role in it; his very existence is ignored in Lee’s script.)

In Lee’s narrative, Anning continues her labors of finding and cataloguing fossils preserved on the shore, living an impoverished life with her widowed mother Molly (Gemma Jones), whose prized possessions are small porcelain animal figurines she polishes obsessively each night.  A rigorous, single-minded person, Mary is not exactly pleased when oleaginous Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a self-professed scientist himself, shows up at her tiny shop with his wife Catherine, who’s depressed from a failed pregnancy, offering to pay for accommodations and the opportunity to observe Mary’s work.  Needing money, Anning reluctantly agrees.

Roderick soon falls out of the picture, but Catherine does not.  When he goes off on an expedition, he persuades Anning to allow his wife to remain under her care.  Despite the differences between them, they gradually warm to one another, especially after Mary patiently sees Catherine through a serious bout of pneumonia—in the course of which she approaches Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw) to purchase medicinal salve.  There’s a suggestion of a failed relationship between them that’s never explicitly spelled out.

From there Mary and Catherine develop a strong bond that turns passionately sexual.  And when they must part, it appears the separation will be permanent.  But unlike “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” another period film on a similar theme, a tone of wistful resignation is not what Lee chooses. 

Visually, too, Lee’s approach differs from Célie Sciamma’s in that film.  “Ammonite” is naturalistic where “Portrait” was gauzier and lusher.  That can be felt both in sequences on the seacoast shot by Stéphane Fontaine, but also in the interiors, where the production design by Sarah Finley opts for period realism, down to the creaky floorboards.  It extends to Michael O’Connor’s costumes, which convey a tactile sense of authenticity.  Chris Wyatt’s editing brings a similarly unadorned quality, resisting the temptation to beautify the women’s encounters.   An understated but empathetic score by Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann adds to the effect.

The costumes also reflect the stark differences between the two women, with Mary dressed in simple dresses of coarse fabric and Charlotte in more elegant finery.  Those differences are even more powerfully felt in the performances of Winslet and Ronan, who inhabit their characters so fully that they don’t appear to be acting at all.  Jones and Shaw cut touching cameos, while Alex Secăreanu is persuasive as the local doctor who shows an interest in Anning and McArdle makes Murchison unpleasantly unctuous.                   

The spirals of an ammonite fossil suggest complexity and interconnection, and so seem an apt symbol for this period tale of same-sex love that toys with the historical record but offers compelling performances and convincing ambience.