Paleontology wouldn’t be the same without Mary Anning. She scoured the dreary coast of southern England for secrets not seen since the Jurassic, fueling the nascent 19th-century field of fossil studies with evidence of strange sea dragons, flying reptiles and other fascinating fragments of life long past. And now, over 170 years after her death, she’s got her own movie.
Ammonite will open at the Toronto Film Festival but isn’t set to premiere in theaters or in homes until later this year, but the historical drama is already stirring the waters like an excitable Plesiosaurus. The first trailer for the film hit the web yesterday. The tale, directed by British filmmaker Francis Lee, follows Anning (Kate Winslet) as she reluctantly brings a young woman named Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) along on some fossil-hunting trips in the hope that the vigorous activity will help her new apprentice’s illness. But the two find more than fossils. In Lee’s telling, Anning and Murchison begin an intense affair that seems to have no room to breathe under the cultural strictures of Victorian England.
In other words, this is paleo fanfic.
The real Anning was an expert fossil collector and paleontologist who combed the beaches of Lyme Regis and the surrounding area for fossils that eroded from the Jurassic rock. You can retrace her steps on the same beaches, as I did during my own visit to England a few years ago, and maybe even find a little golden spiral along the tideline—ancient, shelled relatives of squid called ammonites.
Anning wasn’t alone in her exploits. Fossil hunting was a family business, and Anning’s father, Richard, took Mary and her brother Joseph on excursions to collect ammonites and other pieces they then sold as tourist curios. When Richard died, the rest of the family took over the business. And they were good at it. In 1811, Joseph found the gorgeous skull of an Ichthyosaurus; Mary later collected more bones from the same animal. Of course, that’s to say nothing of the Philpot sisters. Elizabeth, Louise and Margaret Philpot collected fossils in the Lyme Regis area when Anning was still a child, and Elizabeth became a mentor who encouraged her student to understand both the science and the market value of what she found. Even Anning’s dog Tray, a black and white terrier, went along on fossil trips and would stay at specific spots to mark a fossil’s location while the pooch waited for Mary’s return.
Thanks to her discoveries, sketches and notes, Anning eventually became a rock star in her own right. It’s at this point, when she had established her own fossil shop, that Ammonite finds Anning. But while Murchison really was one of Anning’s friends, no evidence suggests that the two had any kind of romantic ties. In fact, no evidence of the paleontologist’s love life—beyond her drive to keep digging into the Blue Lias strata that produced so many bones—exists at all.
Turning Anning’s remarkable story into a torrid romance has already incensed some would-be viewers. Reactions have run the gamut from objections to historical inaccuracy and homophobia, with little resolution given that we’re far too late to ask Anning herself.
In defending his choice, Lee snapped back against the anti-queer underpinnings of the outrage and said he sees Ammonite as another part of his efforts to “continually explore the themes of class, gender, sexuality within my work, treating my truthful characters with utter respect.” Focusing on Anning’s romantic life, even if entirely invented, is a way to see her as a whole person, not just the woman who sells seashells down by the seashore.
I have to wonder what Anning would say to this. As she wrote in a letter, “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” In the sexist, male-dominated world of 19th-century science, Anning’s finds were celebrated while she herself was barred from joining academic societies or even finding a path to gain equal footing with the likes of William Buckland, Gideon Mantell and other traditional heroes of paleontology who parasitized her labor. Now, in having her life’s story made a fiction, is the world using Anning again?
In all the hubbub over Ammonite’s portrayal of Anning, commenters have continually missed a critical point. Anning never married, and we don’t know if she had romantic or sexual relationships with anyone. Lee, and some others, have taken this as a hint that Anning may have been a lesbian and hid the fact to avoid controversy. But it’s equally possible that Anning was asexual or uninterested in romance. Perhaps, then, Ammonite is an exercise in erasure wrapped in progressive packaging, ignoring what we know of Anning in an attempt to read between the lines. The truth died when Anning did.
How audiences will experience Ammonite will largely depend on what they bring to it. If they’re expecting a historically accurate biopic, they may sit back on their couch fuming. Ammonite is to paleontology what The Untouchables is to Prohibition or Raiders of the Lost Ark is to archaeology. If viewers are looking for a queer romance set against a wave-battered backdrop, they may feel a little warmer to the treatment.
The sheer pressure put on Ammonite to fulfill our fossiliferous expectations says something about our current moment in science. The accomplishments and importance of women in paleontology are far more prominent than they were in Anning’s time, yet the standard image of a paleontologist remains an Indiana Jones wannabe focused on trophy hunting dinosaurs. And when it comes to diversity within the field across positions—from volunteer and student all the way up to professors—there remains a diversity gap that even cisgendered, straight, white women are fighting against, to say nothing of better support and representation for everyone else who falls outside those narrow categories.
And so we keep turning to Anning as a singular hero, a woman who made amazing and lasting contributions against the odds. She, and the women whose careers were intertwined with hers, deserves to be honored just like the men who fill the introduction sections of paleontology textbooks. At the same time, perhaps we are asking Anning to carry too much—to be the sole representative of an entirely different view of paleontology. If representation for women in the field were better, perhaps it would not feel as if so much is at stake. As it stands, we are so starved for stories other than the Great White Fossil Hunter that it’s almost impossible for any tale to satisfy everyone.
If we’re fortunate, some future paleontologist will be able to point to Ammonite and say it’s the first time they got to see themselves represented. I hope so. For the time being, though, I’m looking forward to the evening when my girlfriend and I can curl up on the couch and watch a romance about warm hearts and cold stone, even if we know Mary Anning’s truth requires a bit more digging to find.