In the studied romance “Ammonite,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is set to be released by Neon in the U.S. on Nov. 13, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan play two women who forge a life-changing connection in 1840s England.
Francis Lee (“God’s Own Country”) wrote and directed the film, in which Winslet plays the visionary, yet erased-from-history paleontologist, Mary Anning, and Ronan is Charlotte, a wealthy younger woman grieving over having lost a baby. After Charlotte’s thoughtless husband, Roderick (James McArdle), pays the penniless Mary to watch over Charlotte while he goes abroad, a grudging Mary and the mourning Charlotte fall in love on the rocky, windswept coastline as they hunt for fossils.
At Variety’s Virtual TIFF Studio presented by Canada Goose, Winslet — who plays Mary as driven and beleaguered, yet yearning — talked about what drew her to the part. She said that Lee’s script was “simple, and it was still, and very beautiful,” and added that “Mary — I just admired her so immensely. And I was embarrassed by how little I knew about her.”
Mary lived under the “systemic oppression” of the time, Winslet said, but continued to do her scientific work despite all the challenges that she faced. “She was impoverished,” Winslet said. “She was self-taught. She was admirable — she was a formidable, compassionate person.”
Lee talked about why he chose to tell this particular, fictionalized story for Anning, a scientist about whom there is scant information, especially about her romantic life. “I always knew I didn’t want to write a biopic,” Lee said. “I wanted to do everything I could to elevate her, and give her a respectful relationship that I felt that she was worthy of and deserved.”
Ronan took the part of Charlotte because of its sharp contrast with her experience on Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” since “Ammonite” essentially boils down to a duet between Charlotte and Mary. “I had just come out of the experience of ‘Little Women,’ which is very sort of full of life, and very busy in every scene,” she said. “And there were a lot of cast members in every scene that we would do, and lots of talking, and it was very sort of like kinetic. And I think just from an acting point of view it really interested me to play someone that was much more restrained.”
Charlotte’s bereavement drew Ronan to the role as well, “because I hadn’t really done that before.”
Lee said he tried to shoot “Ammonite” as chronologically as he could, because despite Winslet’s and Ronan’s ability to shoot out of order, “I think it all builds,” he said. “And you can go on that journey properly, and emotionally it feels to fit. And so the scenes become like building blocks.”
To forge the bond between Mary and Charlotte, Ronan said she and Winslet “mapped it out in rehearsals” with Lee.
“Because it’s such a sort of tenuous, very delicate progression, we, the three of us, really needed to be on the same page,” Ronan said. “And actually even James, a little bit as well, who played my husband — everyone needed to be aware of, like, where those shifts were happening, because they were so small.”
Winslet said that though she and Ronan had never worked together before, they were instantly familiar with one another. She talked about the precise way she, Ronan and Lee choreographed Mary and Charlotte’s physical relationship as it began. “We had to be quite specific about just when their hands get very close,” Winslet said. “Or that feeling of ‘Oh, did she just touch my back?’ Just tiny little things — like when Mary smiles when they’re cleaning the fossil that they find together. Francis, I remember, wouldn’t let me smile at all until that moment, and it was very specific, and we’d all discussed it and we’d written it down.”
Ronan said she had asked her gay friends for advice, and they had said to her that other than 2018’s “Disobedience,” they told her they “didn’t really feel like there were many movies that actually represented the lesbian experience, and went into the intimacies of that,” she said. “Not just the sexual side of it, but just the relationships as a whole.”
Winslet noted that the relationship is never discussed in the movie between the characters, much less as a same-sex one. “It just is,” she said. “And so for me, the fact that this story is just about two people who fall in love was quite exceptional.”
“It made me feel that surely, by telling this story in that way, we were in some way contributing to the way that LGBTQ films are interpreted on film, and normalized — without hesitation, without fear,” Winslet continued. “And it was such a joyful experience for me to play a character like that.”