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‘Ammonite’: Newcomer chips away at a fossil hunter’s stony exterior

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan make a fascinating couple, from distant to affectionate to unclothed, in the well-spun period piece.

Kate Winslet (left) plays a paleontologist who makes a connection with her house guest (Saoirse Ronan) in “Ammonites.”
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Let’s start with that curious title: “Ammonite.” That’s the name for the ribbed, spiral-shaped fossils of mollusks that lived in the waters some tens of millions of years ago. This might be the first time a movie has been named for a ribbed, spiral-shaped fossil.

In Francis Lee’s stark, deliberate and well-spun period piece, Kate Winslet delivers a complex and layered performance as Mary Anning, the real-life paleontologist who combed the cliffs of Lyme Regis on the Southern coast of England in the early 19th century, making a number of important discoveries and earning a worldwide reputation in the geographical community, though as a woman she didn’t receive the fame or (relative) fortune or official recognition she deserved.

Mary is blunt, closed-off, antisocial, nearly reclusive — more comfortable working the shores alone all day and tending to her fossils at night than interacting with actual people. Like the Ammonites buried beneath heavy rocks, Mary will remain unseen unless someone comes along and splits open those rocks to find the hidden beauty within. Metaphor, anyone?

In the early going, “Ammonite” has sparse dialogue as we follow Mary’s routine, which seems only slightly less challenging and dreary and draining as Sisyphus and that damn boulder. With a chill wind always blowing and the skies always gray and the threat of rain forever looming, Mary slips and slides and prods and pokes along the slippery cliffs, grunting with every ounce of strength she can muster when she discovers a fossilized treasure in a heavy rock. When she returns home, she shares meals and a few bits of conversation with her ailing and quite unpleasant mother (Gemma Jones), who fusses obsessively over her collection of small porcelain dogs. (The number of dogs — and it’s a large number — is the same as the number of babies Mary’s mother lost.) Mary ekes out a living by sending larger specimens to museums, and selling tiny, polished fossils to the occasional tourist who stops in.

We get the distinct feeling Mary will spend every last one of her days in this manner, but that changes when Roderick Murchsion (James McArdle), a gentleman member of the Royal Geographical Society, pays a visit and gushes like a fanboy in the hopes Mary will let him accompany her on her next expedition. Accompanying Roderick is his shy, pale, nervous wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who seems like an afterthought to Roderick. (When they go out to dinner, Roderick orders a lavish, elaborate meal for himself, and then tells the waiter Charlotte will have a plain white fish, baked no sauce. She doesn’t even speak.)

Roderick tells people his wife has a touch of “melancholia” and that the sea air will do her good. He’s in town for all of a day or two before he announces he’s setting off on a geological tour that will take four or five weeks — six at the most — and he’ll pay Mary to look after Charlotte. Off with you, Roderick, so we can get to the heart of this story!

And that is the relationship between Mary and Charlotte, which goes from formal and distant to friendly and warm — to steamy and sensual. Winslet and Ronan are magnificent together, conveying the escalation of intimate moments, from holding hands to kissing to embracing to an extended and graphic coupling that beautifully conveys the avalanche of feelings each is experiencing as they make love. Given this is all taking place against the backdrop of England circa 1940, to say their romance would cause a scandal would be understating it. Mary and Charlotte know this and they’re careful, but if you were in a room with the two of them, you’d have to be blind not to see the connection.

(Roderick and Charlotte are based on real-life characters who knew Mary, but there’s scant evidence of a romance between Mary and Charlotte. This is a fictional dramatization, imagining a lesbian romance just like dozens of previous period pieces, e.g., “Shakespeare in Love,” have depicted fictional heterosexual love affairs.)

“Ammonite” brings in a couple of interesting characters, including Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth, an old and estranged friend of Mary’s who might have been more than a friend, and Alec Secareanu’s local physician, who treats Charlotte and takes a liking to Mary. Mostly, though, this is a classic two-hander with two actors at the top of their game playing women who have been hiding their true selves under a rock until they discover each other.