If ever there were two movies suitable for a double feature, they are the recent releases Ammonite and The Dig. The Dig is a Netflix original and Ammonite is available from several sources on DVD and BluRay as well as streaming.
Both films tell the stories of long-uncredited, long-forgotten real-life people who contributed greatly to saving and documenting worlds that came well before their time. Mary Anning of Ammonite was a fossil collector, dealer, and paleontologist, and Basil Brown of The Dig was an archeologist and astronomer. Neither came from a family that could provide them with an Oxbridge education. Both were self-taught or taught by family who, in turn, were self-taught. They were brilliant but not of a social class that would draw notice to their feats.
These were rural folks. Mary Anning lived with her mother in Dorset by the English Channel, and her story takes place in the 1840s. Basil Brown was a farmer in Ipswich, Suffolk, and his story occurs at the onset of Britain’s entry into World War II.
Ammonite stars Kate Winslet. This is a Kate Winslet I never before have seen. Her Mary Anning is plain, thick-waisted, and middle-aged, a loner and a woman who shows no joy for the company of her mother or others in her community. She’s sulky and disheartened. Her days mainly are filled with searching for fossils on the beach, cleaning them, and occasionally selling them. She has no friends, no partner, no children.
Into Anning’s life comes an egotistical paleontologist from London who wants her to share her knowledge. He moves on but leaves with her his sickly wife Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan. Charlotte is like a bird with its neck stepped on by a cat. She has no energy, no will. Together, as the film progresses, these two women open up to each other and search for a bond, a possible relationship.
The film is directed by Francis Lee, whose prize-winning film God’s Own Country from 2017, starring popular actor Josh O’Connor, shares some of Ammonite’s characteristics. Both films show the beauty of rural England and its potential for loneliness. Both give the viewer explicit scenes of gay/lesbian sex. Both are quiet films, somewhat slow-moving, intended for viewers who enjoy analytical personality studies.
The Dig has an outstanding cast including Ralph Fiennes, Carey Mulligan, Lily James, Ben Chaplin, and Monica Dolan. The film tells an involving, mostly true story of Edith Pretty, a woman in fragile health who hires Basil Brown to excavate the burial mounds on her property. Brown is an experienced archaeologist but he calls himself an excavator because he has no formal training. He learned from his father, not from a professor. What he excavates is monumental, a 6th century ship filled with cultural treasures of the Dark Ages – so epic in importance that British Museum administrators show up to usurp the project.
The Dig is based on a 2007 based-on-truth novel by John Preston. The film was directed by Simon Stone, an Australian film and theater director. It presents a number of plots and subplots in tiers. There is the basic story of the excavation, and the touching narratives of several characters. There is the tragic situation of Mrs. Pretty, the fears of many as war begins, and the complicated relationships of the ensemble characters. A particularly memorable fellow is Mrs. Petty’s 12-year-old boy who is a delight; It’s is 1938, but he plays games of the future. He loves the new sci-fi comic books and pretends he is a space adventurer.
Both Ammonite and The Dig are treats for judicious viewers.
Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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