Everything changes for Mary when a man named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) comes into her shop. He’s a fellow paleontologist who seems to have an honest appreciation for Anning’s work, although barely registers Mary’s disdain for the fact that her gender is one of the reasons her accomplishments aren’t more recognized. Roderick has a wife named Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), whom he treats more roughly than Mary does her fossils. A shot of a bug trapped in a jar is one of the few times that Lee is so direct in terms of visual comparison, but it fits for Charlotte, a woman who is told what to do and when to do it by a husband who tells people she has “melancholia”. An early scene in which the Murchisons eat dinner sets the tone for their dynamic—Roderick orders an elaborate meal for himself and then tells the waiter to bring his wife “plain whitefish, baked, no sauce.”
While Roderick tries to learn a thing or two from Mary, his wife gets sick, and Roderick decides the best thing for Charlotte would be some sea air. He chooses to leave Charlotte in this small town by the water, hoping the rest will do her some good, and he asks Mary to watch over her. Maybe she could head out on some fossil expeditions? Luckily, Lee doesn’t lean into the city/country dynamic much after their first day on the water. Charlotte adjusts to life with Mary, even helping out with her work. A scene in which Charlotte helps carry a giant rock that Mary couldn’t have done on her own is formative in that this is a movie about connection and how some aspects of life take four hands instead of two.
Mary and Charlotte get closer and closer until their relationship turns physical. Despite notable differences in background and interests, they turn out to have incredible chemistry, bringing out something in one another both emotionally and physically. Great partners teach us new things about ourselves, and “Ammonite” really gets that element of human relationships without overplaying it. Lee’s approach is tactile without feeling exploitative or manipulative. Actually, one could argue parts of “Ammonite” are too low-register, but that’s reflective of its protagonist’s personality in a way that keeps this love story from devolving into melodrama when it could at so many points. And the film explodes in passionate love-making scenes that contrast with the drudgery of the rest of the film. They feel like drowning people gasping for air or people in darkness seeing blinding light for the first time. The contrast makes Mary and Charlotte’s passion burn brighter.