In 1830, Mary is hunting for fossils and exploring the cliffs on the Jurassic Coast in southern England, where she grew up (and uncovered the remains of a 17-foot ichthyosaur at age 12) and where she continues to dig. She has found plenty of specimens, but despite her painstaking work and many discoveries, she still cannot gain admission to the prestigious Geological Society of London.
Destitute, looked down upon by her community and disapproved of by her family, Mary soldiers on with her work, but hits a point of discouragement when a rich rival begins to hunt for fossils in her area, and she finds out a colleague has omitted her name and contribution from a recent paper. But as she scales the cliffs, she discovers a remarkable specimen that makes all the struggle worth it.
Based on the true story of the “mother of paleontology,” writer-director Natashia Mattocks’s historical short has a transportive power, evoking both the grim poverty and social status of 19th century England but also the exciting new era of scientific discovery that began to open up. Handsome cinematography, desolate yet stunning natural settings and steady, measured pacing characterize the film’s style, which visually has the weathered, faded look and texture of both early photography and the stark coastal areas of England.
Within this finely detailed milieu stands a compelling character, who is developed with exceptional economy, focus and precision. Mary is seen through various lenses, and the prism-like structure of the writing moves her through different scenes with family, other members of her community and with her rival — all of which attest to her long-running passion for fossil-hunting, her knowledge and her skill and acuity as a scientist. These attributes position her as an outsider, a societal anomaly, mostly looked down upon except by a few, who recognize her acumen, fortitude and expertise.
But Mary throughout it all remains steadfast in her quest to find more fossils. Though her nature and demeanor are somewhat retiring and introverted, she’s clearly motivated by the sheer love of learning and discovery but she also works in hopes of finding a fossil so undeniably important that she can join the society of scientists that would legitimize her and open up a true career for her.
Actor Keeley Forsyth plays Mary with an innate intelligence, offering up an elegant performance that captures the fire of intellectual passion. Mary’s character arc is unusual in that she doesn’t quite change in a way typical for not stories in film — the story’s conflict is almost entirely external — but her strength and passion for science and geology becomes more pronounced and activated, pushing her forward. Mary becomes more driven, but just as she is on the verge of unearthing a prize of a fossil, she overreaches at a crucial moment, risking nearly everything.
“Mary Anning” is a character portrait of a woman whose tenacity and pursuit of knowledge against considerable odds helped change the course of scientific history, and her work as a collector and excavator helped shaped the emerging understanding of prehistorical earth at the time — a strand of intellectual thought that would come to influence others like Darwin, who himself would profoundly change our understanding of humanity. Those viewers curious about Mary can check out the feature film Ammonite, which portrays more of Mary Anning’s story (including her romantic life) but “Mary Anning” here focuses on her true passion: for learning, discovery and knowledge.