Ammonite Continues the Soggy, Historical Lesbian Trend Admirably
Five out of five fossilized mollusks.
There’s been quite a boom in lesbian period dramas of late. Between Portrait of a Lady on Fire and the series Gentleman Jack, there have been justifiable jokes about how the only thing lesbians really need now is electric lights. And while it’s a fun joke, I don’t mind it. We’ve had a century of historical cinema with straight people at the center, it’s about time queer stories caught up. And with Ammonite, we have another meditative, damp tale of quiet longing to add to the canon that I quite enjoyed.
Ammonite tells the story of a love affair between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison, two real women in the 1830s (or so). And we’ll get this out here first, it’s not an entirely accurate portrayal of their relationship, mainly in that Murchison was actually the elder woman in the pair. Anning was a pioneer in the field of paleontology whose contributions to science were ignored or claimed by men. Anning dedicated her life to excavating fossils on the coast of England, including Ammonites (fossilized mollusks). Charlotte apprentices with Mary for a time at the insistence of her husband who thinks it will help her “melancholia.”
What follows is a nearly wordless courtship between the two women, who first clash then crash together in passion and tenderness. It’s a movie built on long silences and the distant crash of waves on stark beaches. Candles flicker on bedside tables amid sighs of passion and the soft scrape of keeping a humble home clean in a dirty world echo throughout. It’s a film obsessed with giving us details and intimate character moments without telling us overtly what to make of them.
I think the comparisons to Portrait of a Lady on Fire are indeed relevant, but not as an insult and more as a curiosity of how these two films, which I think were made without influencing one another, did end up so similar. Both are films full of silence and the dour banalities of just living in the eras in which they are set. They both feature the sea and the solitude of their protagonists, isolated for a while from the world of men, as characters unto themselves. Both explore class and duty and the roles of women. And, remarkably, neither ever get boring despite all the quiet.
Ammonite succeeds thanks to the extremely confident direction by Francis Lee and the remarkable performances at its center. Saoirse Ronan is lovely as Charlotte, and she plays her slow journey out of depression very well. This is the kind of character that easily could have been cloying or left us asking why Mary falls so in love with her, but Ronan keeps her performance right in the pocket of charming but also complex.
But the real star is Winslet, who conveys so much of who Mary is with a nervous look or tired sigh. She’s a character as hard and fragile as a fossil herself, keeping all her pain and longing and resentment inside at all times until she’s broken open. And Winslet is just so good at showing us who Mary is at every moment, wordlessly conveying her struggle or loneliness or love without ever being over the top. This entirely unselfconscious performance serves as another reminder that Winslet is one of the great actresses of her generation.
There has been a lot of discussions lately, thanks to the influx of film and television about queer women, centered on what these narratives mean for us and if it’s regressive or depressing that we have so many stories that seem to repeat the tired tragedies of queer life in darker times. But I don’t think that’s fair and I also don’t think that applies to Ammonite. While there certainly is an element of loneliness to Mary that stems from her queerness, it’s not necessarily played as tragic. Her solitude stems as much from her unwillingness to trust or be vulnerable far more than it does from her desires for women, and that’s an interesting story.
And in general, Ammonite is not a tragedy at all. It’s a moment in time, preserved and excavated with care and delicacy that I truly enjoyed. I hope that the next “lesbians fall in love without talking much next to the ocean” film we get, however, explores a story that isn’t entirely white and brings more diversity and inclusion to this very specific genre.
(image: Universal/Neon Films)
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