Why ‘Ammonite’ Director Francis Lee Says the Story of a 19th Century Paleontologist Is So Personal

Anne Thompson
·5 min read

The film world loves to discover a new director with a strong voice. That’s what Francis Lee created with “God’s Own Country,” a rare look at rural working-class men in love. Lee knew the terrain: He grew up gay in the Northern Yorkshire moors depicted in the film, and still lives there. Without being able to afford film school, he figured out that acting would be his best shot at breaking into writing and directing. “I did not have a great education or access to it,” he said.

Lee studied drama, struggled with an acting career (including two lines in Mike Leigh’s 1999 “Topsy-Turvy”), and worked at a junkyard as he figured out how to cobble together financing to make a series of shorts and then “God’s Own Country.” The movie broke out at Sundance 2017 and launched actors Josh O’Connor (“The Crown”) and Alec Secareanu (“Strike Back”) on the world stage. They all remain close friends.

The festival hit inspired producer Iain Canning (“The King’s Speech”) to pursue Lee’s next film. “As a gay producer, seeing a story that so reflected gay life in such raw honesty,” he said, “I wanted Francis to see See-Saw as a place to nurture his second feature. I was obsessed.” Canning attended multiple showings of the movie, asking Lee to please bring him a new project.

Lee listened, and eventually pitched a story about the working-class, self-taught paleontologist Mary Anning, who trawled Lyme Regis, the rocky Jurassic Dorset coast in West England that served as the dramatic setting for “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” Set in the 1840s, “Ammonite” fills in gaps in the life of Anning, whose work was stolen by male scientists; she had strong female friendships, but never married.

Lee crafts a quiet, restrained, unromantic story of a poor woman with scant education who “through ingenuity and skill and determination and will to survive, became one of the best paleontologists of her generation,” said Lee. “The parallels of her and my life were acute for me.”

His script attracted four top actresses: Oscar-winner Kate Winslet (“The Reader”) as Anning, the painfully lonely collector of extinct mollusks; “God’s Own Country” star Gemma Jones as her dour, ailing widowed mother; and as her old and new love interests, Fiona Shaw (“The Lady Eve”) and Oscar-perennial Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), respectively.

“It’s about how we choose to love and how that can end up defining who we are,” Winslet told me. “Pushing romance is not a part of the narrative at all; it’s about subtlety and nuance.”

A-list actors meant Lee had a reasonable budget. “They are brave storytellers,” said Canning. “They saw the potential of doing something different; it’s not often these period dramas focus on working-class characters who get their dresses dirty. It’s fresh in that context. The film requires you to sit in the silences to experience the loneliness and joys and sense of self that comes through the journey, and not being hit bluntly over the head.”

Lee leaves much to the imagination. When the unhappy Anning is finally cracked open by an intimate sexual relationship, it’s exhilarating. Until then, for every smile and glimmer of emotion on her face, said Winslet, “I had to earn it.” She leaned on Lee to help guide her through months of Leigh-style acting preparation for the actual shooting. Unlike his mentor, Lee relies on a script once his actors help form the characters’ backstories.

The movie’s payoff is the intimate bedroom scenes — shot only once — that Winslet and Ronan choreographed themselves, when the two lovers break free of the restrictions imposed by English society and express themselves freely, touching each other’s bodies. When these moments arrive, they are heartbreaking and worth the wait.

The arduous clambering up the cliffs of Dorset in heavy boots were a cinch for the athletic Winslet, who welcomed the inclement weather and stayed alone with a radio in a frigid seaside cottage buffeted by wind and waves as she practiced driving ancient mollusks out of beachside rocks with flimsy archaic tools. “For the good of the work,” she kept reminding herself.

“She got cold and wet and tired and fed up,” said Lee. “It helped us to imagine how the physical environment shaped and changed her.”

Winslet could score an eighth Oscar nomination for a demanding role that was “terrifying and unnatural,” she said. And Lee is on his way. “If I can tell a story in pictures, not words,” he said, “dialogue has to fight hard to play in my film. I will get rid of it if I can tell it visually. I love that fantastic actors like Kate Winslet, Gemma Jones, Fiona Shaw, and Saoirse Ronan can deliver without telling us, ‘This is what’s going on.'”

But lockdown kept “Ammonite” from getting the usual attention at Cannes and Telluride. The movie finally had a virtual premiere at TIFF where Winslet was tributed at an awards gala, followed by closing night at the London Film Festival. “It’s a strange situation to not [share] any of those experiences together,” said Canning. “To have the moments but not the memories.”

Neon will open “Ammonite” in select theaters on Friday, November 13, followed by premium VOD showings starting on Friday, December 4.

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