Who we love and what we do for love are two different things -- and both topics run hard through "Ammonite," the fact-based spellbinder that allows Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan to hit new acting peaks playing sidelined women battling the gender and class bias of Victorian England.
For Winslet's Mary Anning (1799-1847), paleontology -- the scientific study of living organisms (think dinosaurs) preserved in rock -- is an obsession. Hold the yawns. There is nothing fossilized about "Ammonite," a tale of untamed passion set in the rugged British coastal village of Lyme Regis. That's the same place where Meryl Streep stood on a stone jetty in "The French Lieutenant's Woman" while raging wind and sea buffeted her dreams of forbidden love.
Mary has no time for fantasy. She supports herself and her widowed mother (Gemma Jones) by selling cheap versions of ammonite to gullible tourists. The good stuff she saves for her own scientific study. It's a back-breaking job, mucking about in the mud, hauling around boulders that might hide treasures, like the ichthyosaur skeleton she uncovered in her youth. That piece now sits in the British museum, with credit co-opted by undeserving men.
Mary's discovery has given her a brush with fame, which has brought Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a member of London's boys' club Geographical Society, to seek her counsel. Mary agrees, for a fee, to care for the gentleman's frail, corseted, young wife, Charlotte (Ronan), who has suffered a recent miscarriage and needs to heal while her husband travels.
What could these two women, cut from radically different cloths, possibly have in common? For renegade writer-director Francis Lee -- whose acclaimed 2017 debut with "God's Own Country," dealt with two gay Yorkshire farmers -- it's more than a clumsy metaphor about people, like mollusks, trapped in shells. It's also more than the erotically uninhibited sex, which Winslet and Ronan reportedly choreographed themselves. Though Mary and Charlotte, a budding geologist, were known to be friends, their same-sex affair is speculative, a way for Lee to reveal the interior lives the women keep from the public.
In one telling scene, Mary and Charlotte attend a music recital in town, everyone formally dressed in marked contrast to the natural world where Mary thrives. Mary squirms to see Charlotte fitting in and chatting with Elizabeth (the ever-superb Fiona Shaw of "Killing Eve"), Mary's former secret love. Forget words. The three remarkable actresses convey everything essential through look and gesture. Still, there's no missing what the collision of these two worlds will do to Mary and Charlotte.
Winslet and Ronan rise to every challenge in performances of indelible intimacy. Ronan, already at four-time Oscar nominee at 26, continues to astonish. And Winslet is a marvel, pushing aside any trace of vanity to play the hardscrabble Mary as a force of nature who would hardly sacrifice her work for sex or sentiment. "Ammonite" emerges as a transporting portrait of two ladies on fire, a union of flesh and spirit that speaks to a world where women must still fight for equality and the right to love.