After all the hype of pitting these two great actresses in starring roles, and as lebsbians, I found this film a bit of a let-down. It is set in Lyme Regis, where I spent a couple of terms at school and worked in a café on the Cobb, so know its every nook and cranny. Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a renowned fossil-hunter, who lives at home with her wise old mum, played by Gemma Jones. Stricken by gentile poverty they have to sell ammonites and souvenirs to Victorian holidaymakers. Anning’s great discoveries are appropriated by ghastly male paleontologists and displayed in their names in the British Museums so it’s all rather depressing.
One such gold-digger is Roderick Murchison, who leaves his grieving wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in the care of Mary to recover while he globetrots. Fascinatingly it is the silent and gaunt Charlottes who ignites once her husband has departed, but even her charms can barely get a smile from the dour Anning; never has Winslet been so grumpy in any role, and barely utters a word throughout – though her Dorset accent is quite charming. However an emerging passion between the two women is portrayed without any prurience on behalf of the director, actors or audience.
Francis Lee manages to tell the story of their affair (and it may be a story because, despite being based on real people, this is all conjecture) in a phlegmatic and sympathetic way, while subtly drawing attention to the overriding issue of gender and its interrelationship with class and wealth. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine captures the greyness and blusteriness of Dorset in the winter, and Fiona Shaw in a support role is, as ever, a delight. But as a whole, the film did not grip me as it did others.