Francis Lee’s part-historical, part-fictional simmering romance delightfully stumbles onto a warm take on love in its most bare, most vulnerable state of existence. For someone like Mary Anning, whose softness has been rubbed against the dreary, rocky shores of Lyme for far too long to persevere, to flinch at the possibility of Charlotte touching her calloused hands is to admit that not all hope has retreated with the waves. The proud, inviting flicker of light that is the sickly Mrs. Murchison challenges the gloomy grays consuming Mary’s neglected correspondence about the fossils she finds, scrapes, and polishes with love, only to have the egotistical march of men trample her hard work.
Plot Synopsis: What Happens In ‘Ammonite’?
Keeping the narrative predominantly real-life-based is not something Lee concerned himself with when he decided to paint a fragmented picture of British paleontologist Mary Anning and her relationship with Charlotte Murchison, who has been documented to have shared nothing more than a close friendship with the formidable scientist. The Mary we’re met with in ‘Ammonite,’ sharing a rickety household with her sick old mother, has already been a victim of time and fleets of entitled men alike. The Ichthyosaurus fossil she’d lovingly recovered at the sapling age of just 11 adorns the British Museum, with no due credit bestowed on the one who actually put in the work. But at least it ensured that the penurious family of two would have clothes to put on their backs and wouldn’t go to bed hungry for a year. Holding on to just the tedious rituals her fossil-foraging father had ingrained in her before his passing, Mary’s let herself get hardened in such a way that having the men in her field tread on her toes doesn’t actively bother her anymore. She’s got her priorities straight, and with a face that exudes a lifetime of forced misery without the need for a word from her mouth, she puts food on the table when she’s done scouring the lackadaisical beach that holds remnants of the past in its rocks. Her acute disdain for men who’d like nothing better than to take advantage of her poverty-stricken existence and throw cash at the face of the fossils she finds and restores is evident in her exchange with Roderick when the mousy yet insufferably conceited man purchases the ammonite she’s recently come across and begs her to take him on an expedition to the beach overabundant with fossilized treasure. Albeit inadvertently, the real treasure he leaves behind at the mercy of a reluctant Mary is his wife, Charlotte, the grief-clad woman chastised for taking a break from her bright, flamboyant persona, for apparently, she’d been blighted by “mild melancholia.”
How Do Mary And Charlotte Overcome Their Differences?
It was hardly love at first sight. Instead, it’s a wonder that Charlotte even bothered to look past the scornful looks and words she received from the woman who was not at all pleased with the intrusion. And if being a tremendous inconvenience was a crime, I guess Charlotte would’ve been cuffed for falling terribly sick and giving an opportunity to the handsome Dr. Lieberson to correspond with the fascinating archeologist he so clearly fancied. The only things Mary’s ever been comfortable nurturing and tending to have been fossils. So when her assumed feminine inclination to care for the sick is invoked, of course, she feels out of place playing the role she’s never had quite the same congenial dynamic with. But the seemingly cold woman, a scientist inherently terrified of being vulnerable, perseveres, even when it calls for revisiting her past and meeting Elizabeth Philpot, who, albeit obliquely, seems to have had a romantic relationship with Mary at some point in their pasts. It isn’t such a cakewalk for Charlotte, either. Stewing in the disquieting understanding of the unfair differences in their social and financial statuses, I would be surprised if Charlotte didn’t feel a pang of guilt every night Mary slept in a chair to relinquish the bed for her convenience. Charlotte’s well-meant, although a tad tone-deaf gesture of fetching coal when she’s clearly not up to the task, not having lived the kind of life that calls for physically taxing labor, amusingly serves as the first note of the symphony of love they will eventually find themselves serenaded by. It’s also the consequential icebreaker that ignites a spark of hope in Mary, who’s probably never held a crying woman in her arms before. It’s a heartrendingly subtle communication between the two, as quiet as Mary and as life-affirmingly chirpy as Charlotte.
How Do Mary And Charlotte Fall In Love?
With a life buried so deep beneath the cold ground that feeling the warmth of hope has become a pipe dream, Mary wouldn’t have even dared to feel wanted by someone as graceful as Charlotte. Charlotte’s been an injured, exotic bird adorning Mary’s home with a fleeting presence that Mary can’t even bring herself to get attached to because goodbye is just around the corner. That is until Charlotte makes it a point to grace the earth below the pedestal Mary’s put her on and transforms herself into an attainable person Mary is comfortable being close enough to breathe the same air as. And once Mary does get a whiff of the fact that Charlotte may feel the same way as she does, she doesn’t waste a second to pepper hints of affection throughout all of their shared actions around each other and the words they exchange. What else could it be if not a daring confession of her heart’s most aching desires when Mary insists on including Charlotte as a guest at Dr. Lieberson’s house party, fully aware that it was a romantic gesture by the doctor who was enamored by Mary? It must’ve been an audacious adventure on her trembling heart’s part to run out in the rain, fervid with jealousy and insecurities, thinking Charlotte would choose the glamor that she couldn’t offer over the shabby, stripped-of-color love she had at her disposal. But luckily, she was wrong.
‘Ammonite’ Ending Explained: Do Mary And Charlotte Reunite?
The Charlotte who comes alive in all her eccentric, unpredictable glory through Lee’s pen is, at the same time, the complete antithesis of what a person’s immediate assumption would be when they first see her. There still remained a glowing ember that craved the right love—a persevering remnant of her fire that we’ve witnessed her husband try to put out with his patriarchal dominance. There hasn’t been an ounce of care in his gestures; there was nary a touch of concern when he took charge and ordered a plain baked fish for her as opposed to his grand feast. The fluttering bug trapped under a glass on the windowsill was all she was in the house, bounteous with luxuries but severely deficient in anything resembling love and happiness. The only reason Roderick even bothered to take the doctor’s advice into account and bring her to Lyme was that he needed to get in touch with Mary in order to hopefully procure a piece of fossil that he could pass off as his own over a glass of wine with his equally half-witted friends. Mary’s drab household, lacking in fine China and not one fancy dress in sight, breathed life into the woman who was close to surrendering to an existence bereft of joy. And her presence did something similar to Mary, a woman of such a soul-crushing routine that a smile couldn’t seep through the cracks.
A quiet acknowledgment and subsequent contempt for her sexuality, which was an even bigger taboo back in their time, was written all over her mother’s face every time their eyes met reluctantly. All she can expect to inherit from her cancer-stricken mother are the religiously polished porcelain figurines that represent the eight children that death stole from her. The helplessness of watching someone be taken over by a phantom motherly instinct while her living offspring is met with naught but scornful looks and groans of disappointment is palpable in each frame reserved for Gemma Jones’ self-assertively hateful mother and Kate Winslet’s morosely disillusioned daughter. Her mother was bitter enough to bide her time before disclosing the letter sent by the imbecilic Roderick Murchison, threatening the longevity of their budding love. Yet, with the entirety of her agonizingly exercised sense of cold well-being at stake, Mary can’t help but get so smitten that she’d offer up a limb for a touch of her beloved. And a worthy beloved Charlotte is, smoothly guiding Mary’s transformation from rigidly self-reliant to longingly vulnerable. So what if Mary’s flung outside the condemnatory confines of a society that can’t stand a woman who doesn’t labor with her womb?
The exceedingly heavy fossil Mary’s severely autarkic hands allow Charlotte to share will hold far more significant meaning to their lives, even if it’s eventually sold for sustenance. Every moment of escalated intimacy between the two is enriched by just how poignantly Charlotte’s soft, conventional femininity complements the broad, somewhat coarsened by the life she’s led, yet delightfully ethereal femininity that is Mary. There’s a smile on both of their faces that is reflected by the relatively luxurious mushrooms that rest on Mary’s humble plates. And even after the news of Roderick’s letter comes as a sadistic stab in both of their hearts, their most primal, most lovesick intimacy is what they hold on to for as long as time’s march does them the courtesy of slowing down. It’s woefully commendable just how effortlessly Mary remolds herself to fall back into the patterns life had set for her all along. It’s almost as though she’d never even let herself go to the extent of dreaming of a better life, no matter how charming the present was made by Mrs. Charlotte Murchison. For a while, it seemed as though the mournful, betrayed looks shared by them before the dreaded carriage ride were the last they’d see of one another. The fear was only nourished by the crumbling grief Mary had to endure alone when her mother’s despairing life came to an end. It also paved the way for a rather revelatory conversation between Mary and her ex, who’d borne the brunt of falling short in all the possible ways when held up against Mary’s humbling temperament and formidable talent as an instinctive paleontologist.
Nobody stood a chance when it came to the crushing inferiority complex that’s almost inescapable for people around her and, dare I say, close to her. That was until Charlotte’s impeccable sense of self-worth proved itself to be a valiant match for Mary’s justified supremacy. And with her gone, that nearly fading hint of self-reliance was all that Mary was left with—to tend to it and bring it back to life for survival. But the design of the universe took kindly to the two wretched women, divided by practically every element the world could come up with. Roderick was never truly worried about fidelity as long as his wife’s appearance and demeanor were those of a fascinating ammonite on his shelf. So why would he not approve of Charlotte abruptly inviting the paleontologist to their home? If anything, he might have been too thrilled at the possibility of such a revered scientist living in his home and showing him the ropes, which he hopes will someday make him half as good as her. But thrilled was something Mary wasn’t when the prospect of being a fancy, caged bird was dropped on her lap by her beloved, for whom she’d undergone a taxing commute. There’s nothing more she’d like than to spend eternity with the woman who reminds her that not all of life needs to be spent toiling away. But if love comes at the cost of Mary smothering the person she’s been proud to grow herself into, that is not a love that Mary can make peace with. So even though Charlotte’s naive gesture of devotion was born out of the purest of intentions, that is what effectively kills the possibility of a lasting romance, which could’ve been shared, even if from a painful distance that would end in brief encounters.
During Ammonite‘s ending sequence, the Mary we see at the British Museum is in for a hell of an excursion through the passage showcasing her losses. Framing her as though it’s apologetic for not being given the honor of actually doing so, the row of portraits hailing the great men of the world speaks a thousand words about the respect and recognition Mary Anning and countless women of the same caliber have been deprived of. And on the other side of the glass case, as Mary dourly and, at the same time, proudly gazes at the remains of the Ichthyosaurus, is Charlotte—an invaluable treasure that Mary had discovered, only for it to fall back into the hands of a man who’d never even know its worth, let alone devote himself to its appreciation.