For the first 30 seconds of Ammonite — Francis Lee’s stark drama released earlier this month — a woman burnishes a wood floor with a rag. We never meet her gaze, nor do we learn her name. Her strong, smudged forearms work their way across the screen, her body bent over, her face to the ground.
The setting, we learn as the woman is abruptly ordered to “move,” is a gallery at the British Museum, home to the fossilized remains of a “Sea Lizard” that two suited men haul in on a stretcher. Scoffing at the label crediting “Miss Mary Anning” for the find, one swaps it for a tag displaying the creature’s scientific name with a male “esquire” attributed below.
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The scene — especially its plodding opening shot — sets the tone for Lee’s filmic meditation on the life and work of Mary Anning (1799–1847), the British paleontologist most famous for discovering the Ichthyosaurus off the Lyme Regis cliffs when she was 11 years old. Starring Kate Winslet as Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, a wealthy housewife unceremoniously left in Mary’s care, to eventually become her lover, Ammonite is no biopic, nor (thankfully) a revisionist fantasy of two 19th-century women embracing queerness. It is, rather, a slow, often lyrical account of loneliness, sexism, and class struggle, to which Mary, Charlotte, and their fleeting partnership are never entirely immune.
While Ammonite’s swoon-worthy cast and prestige factor make for likely Oscar fodder, not everyone is pleased with the film’s queer premise. As Film Daily put it, “Queer movies often suffer from a fair amount of stereotypes and tired tropes,” what comedian Liza Dye dubbed the genre of “depressed dykes on a beach.” And, from its tide-heavy, violin-addled trailer, Ammonite could surely appear “firmly in the camp of white-lady lesbian angst,” displacing queer concerns onto a dreamily escapist foreign landscape. Visual and narrative similarities to Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) further encourage this (mis)interpretation. Both are period dramas set by the sea, about women thrust together by circumstance, forming a friendship and then becoming lovers. Both involve a feminine “lady” and a self-reliant, working woman. Both boast some fetching frocks and more than a few fine hats.
But to call Ammonite a “love story” in the spirit of Portrait misses the larger point. With three scenes of intimacy, of which only one feels truly amorous, Ammonite is less about heaving bosoms than heavy physical labor. When characters aren’t shoveling coal, they are lighting candles in cramped quarters or scraping carrots with an ancient knife. A lot of time is devoted to the slow, dirty process of finding, unearthing, and preparing fossils. Chapped hands, muddy boots, and wheelbarrows abound.
As in his 2017 debut God’s Own Country, which explored the relationship between two Yorkshire sheep farmers, Lee’s vision of romance is as rocky as the Lyme Regis shore — it prompts less a tingle through the loins than a chill down the spine. For much of the diegesis, Mary and Charlotte barely exchange words, and are hardly eager companions. When Charlotte plays the dainty diva during their morning excavation on the beach, Mary sets her straight. “Let me be clear,” she glowers at her corseted tagalong, “I don’t want you here. Your husband paid me to take you out here with me. Don’t matter to me if you want to be here or not.” When they finally kiss a full 70 minutes in, the swift, carnal shift to the event reads as desperate as much as tender, the women moving from nervously locking lips to hungrily hiking up petticoats. When, by the end of the film, Mary tells Charlotte, “You don’t understand me,” it is easy to see why.
On one level, the flinty, taciturn paleontologist is an odd turn for Winslet, whose natural ebullience defined films like Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). But on another, Mary is the perfect vehicle for the actor, 45, to embrace a new manner of depth, as a plausible autodidact unearthing hidden fossils. As Winslet shared in an interview with Vanity Fair, “I felt it was very important to be able to carry the weight of the manual laboring life that was so much a part of who Mary was. There’s a solidity and a heftiness to her that I wanted to create. That just meant physically doing a few things a little differently and letting go of all vanity.”
In portraying Mary and Charlotte’s evolving connection, Lee rejects the picturesque for something much more bracing — and certainly believable. Cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine’s lens revels in the moments between boiling an egg and embroidering a handkerchief, between locking eyes and moving on in silence, which is what Mary and Charlotte (and everyone else) do for most of the film. Instead of sweeping strings, most of the soundtrack is the howl of the wind, the grunt of women doing grueling work, the hiss of piss against the rocks as Mary squats upon the beach, or the echo of coughing from her captious mother (Gemma Hayes, who, as matriarch, makes “Whistler’s Mother” look like a bubbly Mrs. Claus). Anyone craving a panoramic ode to sapphic love might come out wanting.
But for those invested in the historic crosshairs of class and sex, Lee doesn’t let us forget that Mary and Charlotte are from radically different worlds — each world placing different constraints on female behavior and the possibility of sexual pleasure. “Working women and women of color’s low status as well as their participation in the public sphere deprived them of the feminine purity that protected women from males …,” wrote historian Esther Newton of women’s sexual identity in the 19th century in her canonical 1984 essay “The Mythic Mannish Lesbian.” “What ‘pure’ women did with each other, no matter how good it felt, could not be conceived as sexual within the terms of nineteenth century discourse.”
But what of the “impure” women, like working-class Mary? How might their pleasures be limited — or liberated — in the context of a private, same-sex relationship? And how might that be complicated if such pleasures happen to be with a “pure” woman of the upper-crust? Ammonite may not directly tackle these questions, but by the end of the film they come crashing in like the tide to which Mary tends each morning.
Given the choice between becoming a kept woman or going on with her current life, lonely as it is, Mary chooses the latter. “I feel like I’m at a great disadvantage,” Mary tells Charlotte, upon the invitation to move into the latter’s grand London home. “Your proposition makes me feel like a fancy bird in a gilded cage.” And, of course, Mary is at a disadvantage — not because she is queer, in this case, but because she is poor and queer. Due to her vocation as a fossilist, she can reject the gilded cage that Charlotte can’t live without, but sans male legitimacy through marriage and property any personal choice she makes bears arguably harsher consequences.
“It’s just the maid,” Charlotte quips, dismissing Mary’s clear distress at a witness to their kissing, the same maid who mistook Mary for a servant outside the front door. In Lee’s universe, as in the world today, expressions of same-sex desire are much more available to the privileged. By the film’s conclusion, Mary and Charlotte’s bond is tenuous, and nothing is tied up in a Victorian bow.
Ammonite is now playing in select theaters and is available to stream beginning on December 4.