Francis Lee is a filmmaker who revels in landscape as a means of storytelling. In his aching debut God’s Own Country, two taciturn farmers edge their way towards intimacy in the rugged Yorkshire Dales. And now, in his follow-up Ammonite, Oscar-winner Kate Winslet and four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan are two women divided by class, but swimming slowly towards one another.
“It’s about looking at how a landscape forms people, both emotionally and physically, usually within the world of how they work,” he says. “In both films, I spoke to the cinematographers saying, ‘what I don’t want is to make a film that’s like a tourist advert’.”
And yet there’s rugged beauty in both, allowing us to crawl under the calloused skin of his characters. Winslet plays 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning, who discovered so many dinosaur remnants frozen in stone but never accrued the public respect she deserved from her mostly male colleagues.
The sea is an important player here, though one that has always alienated country boy Lee. “I have to be honest, one of the reasons I was drawn to making this film was because I don’t like the seaside,” he says. “I find it really melancholic. But I also wanted the power of this sea that in one moment could be for me personally, depressing, foreboding, violent and difficult, to then be very cleansing.”
Its tides bring Anning together with Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) the upper-class wife of James McArdle’s aspiring palaeontologist gentleman Roderick, who arrives unannounced, asking to learn the tricks of Anning’s trade. When he then heads overseas leaving emotionally ailing Charlotte behind, she and Anning begin to work the bitter cold beaches of Lyme Regis together, hunting for fossils to sell to keep Anning’s coal fire burning.
“What I actually want to see is the physical effect on the characters that the landscape has,” Lee adds of his approach. “That’s why there’s always so much in hands and feet, in looking at mud on the clothes, or the dirt in their fingernails, how cold they are and what clothes they put on to try and protect themselves.”
Raised on a farm, Lee’s used to going the hard yards. “I feel very close to nature and it navigates certain things for me in my films,” he says, as we discuss the various creepy crawlies that clamber into frame, or lie desiccated on a windowsill. “When I wrote the screenplay, I read it back and was like, ‘Gosh, this is a lot of insects,’ and in fact some were cut.’
But not all. “We were shooting ants and I had somebody out in the garden getting them, bringing them in and then afterwards taking them all back out and letting them free.”
Fauna are another of Lee’s building blocks, much like the lamb runt in God’s Own Country that helps entwine Johnny and Gheorghe. Fabric is another, as with the red knotted jumper the boys share. Mary and Charlotte’s first halting moment together is presaged by their overlapping dresses. “I love textures and tones that make it much more of an immersive experience,” Lee says.
Working with costume designer Michael O’Connor, they spun a rich backstory for Mary. “When we meet her, she has no money – fossils have fallen out of favour – so she probably has three dresses, and they are at least ten years old, because that’s the last time she had some money and could afford them. And then with Kate, we’d go through where did she buy this dress? What did she buy it for? When did it become her work dress? Where are the stress and sweat points? Has she sewn a little pocket in where she can put her fossils when she’s out there?”
These ideas enrich Lee’s palette. “Because I love visual storytelling so much, anything I can do visually to help underpin the story, add another layer or detail, I will do.”
It’s there in an awkward moment where Anning is snubbed while wearing her finest, mistaken for a tradesperson by a maid. “All my work is very personal,” Lee notes. “I’ve always been somebody who’s never felt very comfortable in the clothes that I’ve got, because I’ve never had much money. I’ve often turned up at places and felt embarrassed by what I’m wearing, even if I’ve tried my best.”
The practicalities of work underpin everything, including weeing outdoors, with the boys in Yorkshire paddocks and Winslet hoicking up her skirt on the beach here. “I’m fascinated by how people live their lives, so one of the first things that I think about is, where do they go to the loo? How does somebody who works on the beach all day do that?”
This seam of working-class reality connects both films. Ammonite opens on an unnamed cleaner at the British Museum whose hard work scrubbing the floor is swept away by a gaggle of self-important men bearing Anning’s remarkable ichthyosaur finding, then claim it for themselves.
“It’s about this idea of hidden or neglected voices, and with the museum cleaning lady, to me, she sums up the entire film,” Francis says. “The men just walk over her clean floor and tell her to shift. She’s irrelevant to them. And then with the renaming of the fossil in the museum, eradicating Mary’s name without even a thought.”
Thanks to this aching film, there’s no risk of Anning ever being forgotten.
Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, is in cinemas from Thursday 14 January.
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