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ArtsA Passion for Mary Anning

A Passion for Mary Anning

On a recent Instagram post by @lymeregisfossils there’s a quick film of a hand reaching into a rock pool to extract what looks like an ancient, deeply rusted, bolt. To be told it’s an ichthyosaur vertebrae gives a taste of the thrill of revelation that fired Mary Anning two centuries ago as she discovered—and then correctly identified—the crudely categorised ‘curiosities’ that studded her native Lyme Bay beaches and cliffs; ‘Devil’s Fingers’ were belemnites, ‘Snakestones’ were ammonites.
I was shown this by my son during another session of online-learning that had gone off target but still hit the spot. Palaeontology is proving to be the passionate preoccupation that provides escape from the boredom and isolation of lockdown life. Did I know that Anning’s first major find, the ichthyosaur, looked nothing like the hard, old ‘shrink-wrapped’ depictions of it as a giant marine lizard because now they’ve found fossil impressions of soft tissue so delicate they show they had dorsal fins and gave birth to live young? Did I? No I didn’t! I didn’t even know it wasn’t actually a dinosaur… ‘Mum, they were more closely related to lizards and snakes but they were alive at the same time as dinosaurs’.
This year is the 200th anniversary of the first scientific identification as an extinct reptile of Anning’s other crucial find, the plesiosaur, though we can’t know if it was based on one of her discoveries as the credit goes to the fossil’s buyer Colonel Thomas Birch. But she does retain acknowledgement for the 1823 discovery and documentation of the first complete plesiosaur skeleton. The intricate annotated diagram of her Early Jurassic treasure is also the most stunning demonstration of her self-taught skills as a scientist. How much she would have loved to see the 2011 fossil find of a pregnant plesiosaur that shows it carries one large foetus and was likely to have cared for that precious progeny like a whale does for its young. In her time these ancient giants were depicted by artists like John Martin and Henry De La Beche as fearsome swamp dragons. At the Great Exhibtion’s Crystal Palace Park they even took the sharp toe bone of a megalosaurus and put it on the end of their model’s nose to make it look more monstrous. Mary’s precious plesiosaur was imagined rowing itself like a freakish prehistoric boat using its fins like oars.
Francis Lee does his imagining in a remote shack in his native Yorkshire where he’s free to create his intensely personal films. He first encountered Anning when he was trying to buy a fossil for his then-boyfriend, and it is that break-up and the possibility of being open to love again that emotionally animates Ammonite. As Lee told Alex Bilmes in an interview for Esquire, he developed a deep respect for Anning, ‘Mary felt like a figure from history who had been ignored, who had no voice and had been passed over, because she was working class and a woman.’ Poor, uneducated, female and young, Mary Anning is now an intersectional feminist icon and elicits devotion on all these counts. The founder of the successful £100,000 Crowdfunding campaign ‘Mary Anning Rocks’ Evie Swire was just 11 years old when she started her appeal, the same age as Mary when her father died and she had to sell fossils to support her family. May 21 next year (Anning’s 223rd birthday) is pencilled for the unveiling of sculptor Denise Dutton’s dynamic Mary setting out to the coastline with basket, tools and her dog Tray.
We know that Tray died on one of these expeditions in a mudslide in 1833 from a letter to her close friend Charlotte Murchison, a fellow fossil-hunter whose lobbying led to the opening of King’s College London’s geology lectures to women.
Lee’s focus in Ammonite is a fictional later meeting between the two women in the last chapter of Anning’s life. It is the mid 1840s, her greatest finds are in the Natural History Museum (but few attributed to her), the high fashion for fossils is over and in a couple of years she will die of breast cancer aged 47. She lives alone with her mother (played by Lee’s most regular actor, Gemma Jones) and is withdrawn after an unhappy love affair with an older woman (Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth Philpot). Gentleman geologist Roderick Murchison asks if his young wife Charlotte can be left in Mary’s care, saying she has ‘mild melancholia’. She has lost a child.
Like Lee’s first feature, God’s Own Country, it’s a story about a life-altering gay relationship for a working-class protaganist engaged in hard work in a wild outdoors (Lee likes his mud and stone!). His characters are revealed and changed by what they do with their physical selves more than by what they say, the best of filmmaking that does show not tell.
He told Alex Bilmes ‘I never thought I’d make a period film, they’re always so lush and bright and middle class. Everything looks gorgeous and everyone’s really clean.’
Ammonite is a visceral depiction of Anning; having a pee on the pebbles, picking out fossils with her bare hands or gruffly telling her posh young charge, ‘There looks to be fuck-all wrong with you to me’.
Lee returned from London to Yorkshire to pursue his life-long passion for film after a failed acting career that left him broke and sofa-surfing for years before he took work in a Vauxhall reclamation yard. He struggled with depression, and despite being brutally bullied in his teens there was a pull back to the terrain of his youth, ‘I couldn’t get any of it out of my bones—very specifically these hills and this landscape and this light.’ Lee is a romantic, and like his story-telling neighbours the Brontës this suffuses the people he creates and their potent sense of place. In God’s Own Country the lovers break away from the farm graft to climb a peak that reveals the astoundingly beautiful land that’s always been stretching out around them.
Lee was in his late 40s when he got the BFI funding to make God’s Own Country, produced below the usual industry radar and on another Yorkshire hillside. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017 it was hailed as the debut of a new independent film talent. Josh O’Connor is now the star of The Crown as Prince Charles, but then he was unknown too, playing Johnny Saxby, the miserable young farmer who blunts himself with binge-drinking and casual sex. O’Connor is devoted to working with Lee and was so committed to the project he ended up on a hospital drip after losing too much weight for the role. He told Bilmes ‘Francis [Lee] knows exactly what he wants…. and there’s no embarrassment, he creates an environment where I can be fully immersed. That’s a rare thing.’ Josh and co-star Alec Secăreaunu spent weeks before shooting started working on a farm lambing and dry-stone walling.
Brave and without vanity, Kate Winslet has long done whatever it takes to bring a character to life, from developing hypothermia in the infamous Titanic water tank to recently learning to freedive for Avatar 2—holding her breath underwater for 7 minutes 14 seconds and breaking Tom Cruise’s film record. In preparation for playing Anning, she lived alone in a small wooden house on the Lyme coast, candle-lit drawing and writing at night, fossiling by day in heavy old boots and using traditional tools. She polished one of her finds as a present for co-star Saoirse Ronan. By the time filming started Lee didn’t recognise the scruffy, shuffling figure hanging at the edge of set as the star he affectionately calls ‘Winslet’, and leading film criticism site loves the result of this creative collaboration, ‘Lee trusts his lead performer to convey an incredible amount without dialogue. And that trust pays off in one of the best performances of Kate Winslet’s career’.
Ammonite has been received with critical acclaim but also controversy. Devising romantic chapters for historical figures draws little period drama policing when the scenarios are heterosexual—see Shakespeare in Love with Gwyneth Paltrow, or recently out of it in the novel Hamnet—and Lee used Twitter to give a robust response to his critics,
‘After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given an historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context? Particularly a woman whose work and life were subjected to the worst aspects of patriarchy, class discrimination and gender imbalance?’ Kate Winslet describes the Ammonite experience as transformative for herself as a film actor, telling Eva Wiseman in The Observer, “I realised how film has forever objectified women—we do it like we’re breathing. The sense of equality working on this was so remarkable’. And she expressed anger at the press emphasis on sex scenes as a source of titillation, ‘rather than the content of the scene itself. It really pisses me off actually. What I love about how Francis [Lee] chose to tell the story of Mary Anning, and her connection with Charlotte, is that he did it without hesitation. The relationship is part of the story. It’s nothing to do with fear or secrecy. It’s about two people who fall in love.’ defines the film as storytelling beyond the biopic, ‘With Ammonite Lee is reaching for something deeper than a history lesson. It’s a story of connection, how we can all be changed by someone we meet’. Lee simply says his films are about love and acceptance. Worthy prizes for him and his muse. By Ines Cavill

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