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'Ammonite' review: Well-acted erotica, but historically dubious

This image released by Neon shows Kate Winslet,

This image released by Neon shows Kate Winslet, right, and Saoirse Ronan in a scene from "Ammonite."  Credit: Neon via AP/Agatha A. Nitecka

PLOT In 19th-Century England, a female paleontologist begins an affair with a married woman.

CAST Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan

RATED R (explicit sex)

LENGTH 2:00

WHERE In theaters; on demand Dec. 4

BOTTOM LINE Candlelit erotica for Oscar voters.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan act their way right out of their petticoats in "Ammonite," Francis Lee’s story of forbidden love between the paleontologist Mary Anning and a young Charlotte Murchison in 19th-Century England. It’s a steamy fantasy built around a somewhat odd combination of tight corsets and muddy fossils. The characters are real but the romance is fictional, which puts this movie in an awkward category: part biographical drama, part erotic fan-fiction.

Winslet plays Anning, a self-taught paleontologist of some renown (her 17-foot ichthyosaur discovery was displayed in the British Museum) but whose gender has excluded her from London’s scientific community. We find Mary living in the coastal town of Lyme Regis, a backdrop that mirrors her personality: craggy, cold and hostile. Her only company is her ailing mother, Molly (Gemma Jones), a figure of Dickensian misery with rheumy eyes and a bloody cough. Bumbling into this unhappy picture is Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a budding geologist, who decides to leave his pretty but fragile wife, Charlotte (Ronan), in Mary’s care while he returns to London.

That’s one of many contrivances writer-director Lee employs to throw his two leads into each other’s arms. "We should share a bed," Charlotte not-so-innocently tells her host. It isn’t long before she and Mary are making passionate love on the excavation table while the fossilized ammonites — extinct, nautilus-like creatures — sit placidly by. At times like these, the strong performances by Winslet and Ronan seem to be all that separate this movie from a soft-core bodice-ripper.

"Ammonite" takes a great deal of poetic license. For one, there’s no evidence these real-life women developed anything more than a friendship. Nor, it seems, did Charlotte and Roderick Murchison have the grim marriage portrayed here; they appear to have been a well-matched couple who traveled the world together and shared a passion for science. Charlotte was a noted geologist in her own right, yet for some reason Lee sees fit to strip away her accomplishments and turn her into a sparkly-eyed ingénue.

All this twisting of the truth undermines the movie’s heroic portrayal of two lesbians defying an oppressive patriarchy. It’s as if Lee began with an agenda, then hammered history until it fit. (He also hints at a past romance between Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, another fossil collector of the era, played by Fiona Shaw.) The result is a well-crafted, beautifully acted movie that includes a fair amount of explicit sex — regardless of whether anyone had it or not.

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