Mary Anning was a groundbreaking 19th century paleontologist whose unearthed some of the world’s first complete dinosaur skeletons in her fossil hunting ground of Lyme Regis in Southwest England. She discovered the first identified ichthyosaur skeleton, two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons, and dozens of other key findings in the scientific community of the era. Because she was female, Anning was not allowed to engage in broader scientific conversations about her findings and was intensely poor for most of her life.
Her story provided writer/director Francis Lee the starting point for his film Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet as the now famed paleontologist. The film stems from a personal connection Lee felt with Anning.
“I was instantly drawn to her background, where she came from, and her experience. That felt very personal and resonant to me. Here was this working class woman born into a life of poverty and into a very, very patriarchal, class-ridden society. She had very little access to education, and yet, through her own ingenuity, determination, and need to survive, she rose to being what would now call the leading paleontologist of her generation,” Lee explained. “I’m from a very working class background, from a very rural area in Yorkshire in the UK. I didn’t have access to a great education, and those things just resonated with me personally.”
Eschewing traditional biographical tropes, the film offers Lee’s interpretation of Anning’s life and her brief love affair with married Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). In reality, there’s little information about Mary Anning’s personal life or her sexuality. As such, there’s no evidence that the two real-life friends actually had an affair, but Lee’s film takes their relationship to a logical next level.
Through the film, Lee wanted to explore 19th century personal relationships. In doing so, he had to give Anning a lover worthy of her intelligence and talents.
“I like to explore intimate personal human relationships, and I knew I wanted to do that with Mary. But I wanted to give her a relationship that felt worthy of her and that would elevate her in this patriarchal society where women were owned by men and where someone like Marianne was so overlooked because of her gender. That didn’t feel to me it could be with a man. It felt that that should be with a woman. That sounded and felt more equal, and so that’s kind of how it came about.”
In exploring their relationship, Lee presents several scenes of intense intimacy between the two actresses. Anning and Murchison’s lovemaking feels deeply rooted in a legitimate emotional connection. Their relationship is portrayed as one ignited by the casting off of a repressive 19th century society. When they finally engage in physical contact, the resulting scenes emerge as some of the most realistic seen on film in years.
Their lovemaking scenes were prepared and scripted as deeply as any standard dialogue scene. Lee relied on five months of research and bonding between Winslet and Ronan to fully realize their physical relationship. The finished product was filmed only once.
“I would never put in an intimate scene in a film if it was just so we could see people having sex. For me, an intimate scene, tells a move has to move the story on. It has to tell us something about those characters and where they’re at and how they’re communicating,” Lee remarked. “It was really important that both actors spoke to each other spoke about what they were comfortable with doing. Where they could be touched. Where they were uncomfortable being touched. It was very much a process of finding our way through that, and it was very much a process of me listening to them, providing an environment for them that felt incredibly safe, incredibly protected.”
Ammonite opens in theaters on Friday, November 13, and will be available on Premium On Demand on Friday, December 4.