Ammonite, the anticipated follow-up to Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, steps back in time and moves from contemporary rural Yorkshire to the blanched coastline of Lyme Regis, Dorset. Lee’s second film is an imagining of the life and legacy of Mary Anning, an English fossil hunter and one of history’s most influential palaeontologists.
Mary (Kate Winslet) lives an impoverished and antisocial existence, spending her days alone combing the beach for fossils to make a meagre living for herself and her sickly mother. Her satisfactory isolation is impeded by the arrival of Mr Murchison, a visiting geologist who needs a place to conveniently dump his melancholic wife for a few weeks whilst he travels with his work. Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is depressed and rightly so; she trails behind her self-absorbed husband, inanimate beyond the necessary pleasantries.
Mary unwillingly takes on her new companion, unimpressed by her lack of grit and woe-is-me attitude that put a dampener on their uncomfortable beach walks. However, it soon emerges that Charlotte possesses a forthright, canny personality under all the melancholia, which miraculously dissipates once someone actually shows a mild interest in her (as it turns out, men are just depressing).
As the two women warm to each other despite the intemperate atmosphere in Lyme, things quickly heat up. Mary and Charlotte’s affair is a raunchy but tender one, the two women desperately fanning a flame in their otherwise dimly lit existences. Winslet and Ronan make a beguiling pair; though not much is said between them, their most intimate scenes are frank and urgent. Whilst it’s nice to see a lesbian relationship on screen that doesn’t fade to black after the first kiss, the intensity of the scenes that follow merits a more substantial build-up.
Winslet is a worthy lead, bringing Mary Anning to life with a conviction that lovingly honours the legacy of her tireless but unrewarded work. Ronan’s Charlotte brings relief to Mary’s gloomy disposition, coaxing the hermit out of her shell, but doesn’t quite make it out of her own. Fiona Shaw co-stars as Mary’s ex-lover, who only appears momentarily but teases a speculative prequel to Anning’s lesbian affair.
The overall composition of these fascinating characters doesn’t quite pull together the way it ought; the minimalistic approach leaves some characterisation underwrought and the resolution somewhat lacking. Despite this, Lee’s film has fond moments of innocuous joy and shrewd humour that pull at even the most cynical of heartstrings.
Though a comparison to last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire feels somewhat cheap, it is also hard not to view Ammonite in its overwhelming shadow. As lesbian period dramas with sparse dialogue and a lot of yearning communicated by averted gazes and visual metaphors involving the ocean, Ammonite remains a quietly crackling ember where Portrait blazed. With that said, Lee’s film is a worthy period piece in its own right, with an honest and empathetic approach to the hardships of Anning’s life as a female pioneer in a male-dominated field of scientific discovery.
A quiet but passionate speculation, Ammonite doesn’t quite blaze the trail that Anning did in prehistoric science, but it is a tender ode to the private life she might have led.
by Megan Wilson
Meg (she/they) is a film and gender studies graduate, now working on a PhD at the University of Manchester. When not wrangling her cats or playing football, she dreams of being a professor and writing endless books on lesbian cinema just because she can. Their favourite films include Carol, Moonlight, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and she’ll always have a soft spot for Matilda. Find them on Twitter.
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