Kate Winslet may be one of the most iconic actors of all time with breathtaking performances in films like Titanic and The Reader, but it was her role as Mary Anning in Ammonite, written and directed by Francis Lee (God’s Own Country), that actually made her a bit uneasy.
“I felt quite nervous playing the part,” Winslet revealed during a Q&A discussion during the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “Everyday I would think, ‘oh god, the accent and what are people going to make of me playing this role,’ I was quite panicked by it.”
“I had to just keep reassuring myself that the things that I had planned to do and discussed with Francis would hopefully underpin me throughout.”
Ammonite is a fictionalized story set in the Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis in the 1840s, based on the life of Anning, an incredibly skilled but largely overlooked fossil hunter and palaeontologist.
“I just kind of came across her really by accident and started to read about her, and was instantly drawn to her and her circumstances,” Lee explained to Yahoo Canada. “She was a working class woman born into a life of poverty, within a totally patriarchal, class ridden society.”
Men would buy fossil from Anning, reappropriating her work by replacing her name with their own. Lee was intrigued by questions around what it would be like to never be recognized for your work and how Anning would have felt.
“She had virtually no access to education...and then through her own ingenuity, and self-possession, and determination,...rose to what I guess we would now call one of the late leading palaeontologists of her generation,” Lee said. “I got this real sense of this will to survive.”
Winslet actually learned how to hunt for fossils herself, there were no hand doubles at all for this film, and she worked to adapt to Anning’s routine while living outside of Lyme Regis at the time, trying to to stay relatively separated after filming each day.
As Lee began to learn more about Anning, he recognized some “parallels” with his own life.
“I'm a working class person from rural Yorkshire, in the north of England, I didn't have access to a great education,” he said. “In my heart of hearts, I always knew I wanted to write, and maybe direct film, but it just looked like an industry I couldn't get access to, it looked very, very privileged.”
“I didn't go to film school and it took me to being in my late 40s to make my first feature film. There was just something within that working class struggle and that idea that your voice isn't heard, it isn't present.”
‘It didn't feel that giving her a relationship with a man felt respectful’
While researching Anning, Lee was also reading about same-sex relationships in the 18th and 19th centuries. He came across an academic paper that illustrated letters written between women during that time, which Lee described as “loving and passionate, and hopeful and lifelong.”
“I knew I never wanted to tell a biopic about Mary, but more kind of create the Mary as I saw her and do a slice of life, as it were,” Lee explained. “I wanted to look at relationships...and I thought, well I want to give her a relationship that feels respectful of and equal of her.”
“In this patriarchal society where men had reappropriated her work and being gatekeepers, to me it didn't feel that giving her relationship with a man felt respectful, and so I decided to give her a relationship with a woman because that, to me, felt like a really interesting dynamic at this time, and also a very respectful decision.”
In Ammonite, a relationship between Anning and Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan, is explored. Murchison was a real person, although slightly younger in the film than she would have been at the time, married to Roderick Murchison (James McArdle). He wanted his wife to stay in Lyme Regis to work with Anning to become a better fossilist, and in turn a better secretary to her husband. There is also evidence that Anning went to London to visit the British Museum and is supposed to have stayed with the Murchisons, who ended up becoming a renowned geologists themselves.
“I wanted to look at this sense of loss that each of these characters had and I wanted to look, in Charlotte's case, that there's this sense of a woman from the upper classes, who's been taught that her only function in life is to look pretty, play the piano and bear children,” Lee said. “I wanted to look at someone who maybe can't do that, and then has to reevaluate who they are and what they want out of their life.”
Although the love story between Anning and Murchison is a core aspect of the film, Lee doesn’t use this story as a way to showcase the trials and tribulations of coming to terms with your sexuality. The build up of their relationship, and when they do finally connect physically, it’s raw and complex.
Lee stressed that sexuality wasn’t defined until the late 19th century and it was believed that women didn’t have sexual pleasure organs.
“This idea that two women would be in an intimate relationship together wasn't an idea that people really thought about,” Lee said.
He added that there is a significant amount of evidence of relationships between women during that period, where a married woman would be in her bedroom with a female companion, while her husband was in his own room down the hall.
“There was no transgression that seemed to be thought around that,” he said. “It felt like a really interesting period to explore a relationship between a same sex female couple where the difficulty within that relationship wasn't society, wasn't this idea of coming to terms with it or struggling with it, it was kind of an idea that in this period with these people, I would be able to look at the relationship without those difficulties around sexuality.”
Exploring a situation where ‘your voice isn’t heard’
The chemistry between Winslet and Ronan is undeniable in the film, with these incredibly talented actors leading the way in a film with a compelling dark and rugged aesthetic.
Ammonite is a love story but there’s an intoxicating sadness that adds a level of authenticity. There is very little dialogue throughout the film, leaving the storytelling largely in the details of each location, Lyme Regis and Anning’s home, and the physicality of the actors. This is a tactic that Lee executes with great care that draws the audience into this story with a strong sense of realness and honesty.
“I've always felt that if I can tell the story with pictures, and not dialogue, then that is something that I would like to play with,” Lee said. “We consume so much moving image content, I guess we have to call it these days, that feels very easy.”
“Often a character will come in and say, ‘oh, I feel a bit like this and this is the reason I feel like this,’ and so it's all there for you...there's no subtlety, there's no subtext.”
Loneliness is a core theme in the film, which also led Lee to limit dialogue as another way to explore a situation where “your voice isn’t heard.”
“When you're interacting with somebody else, particularly someone like Mary who's...exterior has had to become so hardened to survive, I found it was very hard for her to open up and be expressive verbally,” he said. “So it was about finding the interplay between all the characters with looks, with touches, with all of those things, which I think all of the actors in the film do so fantastically.”
Ammonite is available on-demand on Dec. 4.