Back in 2017, the English writer and director Francis Lee made a wrenching drama, called God's Own Country, that I wish more people had seen. It told the story of two isolated young men on the rugged moors of North Yorkshire, tending a flock of sheep and falling passionately in love—sort of like a British Brokeback Mountain, only a lot more explicit and with a much happier ending.
Now Lee has made another gorgeous wind-swept tale of forbidden love, this one set in the 1840s and centered on two women. It's called Ammonite, and it feels like a step up in scale and ambition, partly because it's about real-life figures, and partly because it stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan. But Lee's filmmaking is still as raw, intimate and unhurried as it was in God's Own Country. He takes his time easing you into his characters' world, which is important, since that world is not an easy place to live.
Winslet plays Mary Anning, a self-taught paleontologist who was known for her groundbreaking fossil discoveries along the shores and cliffs of Lyme Regis, a sleepy town in the English county of Dorset. The famous tongue-twister "She sells seashells by the seashore" is said to have been inspired by Anning, who sold many of her fossils, including those extinct mollusks known as ammonites.
Mary is gruff and solitary, a kind of human hermit crab, who lives with her ailing mother, played by Gemma Jones. One day, an aspiring geologist named Roderick Murchison turns up, offering to pay Mary if she'll let him accompany her on one of her fossil hunts. She reluctantly agrees, as she and her mother could use the money.
But Mary gets more than she bargained for. Roderick abruptly takes off and pays Mary to look after his young wife, Charlotte, for several weeks. Charlotte, played by Ronan, is suffering from severe depression following a miscarriage. And while Mary finds her burdensome at first, she nurses the poor woman back to health. A spark soon ignites, and the two begin to enjoy each other's company. Charlotte helps Mary with her work, which both fascinates and energizes her.