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Review: 'Ammonite' a Beautiful Lesbian Romance Unearthing Quiet Depth

by Megan Kearns
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jan 12, 2021
Kate Winslet, Fiona Weir, and Saoirse Ronan in 'Ammonite'
Kate Winslet, Fiona Weir, and Saoirse Ronan in 'Ammonite'  

A period piece lesbian romance on the beach, it's easy to compare "Ammonite" to Celine Sciamma's exquisite masterpiece, "Portrait of a Lady on Fire." While sharing similarities, they diverge in many ways. "Ammonite" tells its own beautiful love story.

Written and directed by Francis Lee ("God's Own Country"), "Ammonite" stars Kate Winslet as paleontologist Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte Murchison, both based on real people. The film is set in Lyme Regis, England, in the 1840s. Mary lives with her mother, running a shop selling fossils and trinkets to tourists. She achieved some fame for her earlier work on fossil excavations. She is reserved, curt, and taciturn. Charlotte is the wealthy wife of Roderick Murchison (James McArdle),and she is grieving a tragedy. Roderick, a huge fan of Mary's work, pays to accompany her on a search for fossils. When Charlotte falls ill, he requests that Mary keep her company while he travels abroad. The two connect, and their relationship blossoms.

Both excellent actresses, Winslet and Ronan are wonderful — especially Winslet — giving subtle, nuanced performances. Through Winslet's masterful performance, we feel her exasperation, exhaustion, and the weight of the years fortifying a hard protective exterior.

It's a quiet, thoughtful, contemplative film, highlighting repressed emotions. The ways in which it's reserved speaks to the repression of women and queer people. Despite the passionate sex scenes and Winslet and Ronan's chemistry, I often appreciated the film on a cerebral, more than emotional, level.

We see the female gaze and desire throughout the film. Mary and Charlotte observe each other from the moment they meet. On the beach, Mary watches Charlotte's feet as she takes her shoes and socks off, the camera lingering. In a conservative society, bare feet feel brazen, or even erotic. Hands are often shown in films with queer women. After a party, Charlotte tells Mary, "You were the most fascinating person there tonight. And, I think, the most beautiful." Charlotte gently touches Mary's hand. But Mary pulls away, disconnected from showing tender emotions.

While a lesbian love story, it's also a story about sexism and class differences — how class shapes how we view and navigate the world — and the gendered, heteronormative expectations of women. Class differences divide Mary and Charlotte. We see this instantly through their clothing. Mary wears plain clothes: Sweaters and skirts over pants. She wipes her hand on her dress before shaking someone's hand. In contrast, Charlotte wears lavish gowns. Mary is career-driven, yet has struggled financially while Charlotte lives a wealthy lifestyle. In one scene, Charlotte watches Mary work on a fossil. She talks about an ichthyosaurus fossil she discovered as a child that's in the British Museum, which provided money for years of food, rent, and clothing. In the opening scene, a woman cleaning floors is brusquely told to "move" by a man off-screen. A fossil is brought in on a stretcher with a tag stating, "Found by Miss Mary Anning." A man removes that tag and places another in front of it with a man's name on it instead. The film immediately immerses us in witnessing a woman's work usurped by a man.

"Ammonite" is a beautiful lesbian romance unearthing a quiet depth

The film explores subtly, yet powerfully, explores child loss. Mary watches through the window as Charlotte talks to a woman holding a baby. As soon as the woman walks away, Charlotte looks forlorn. She later cries on the floor, as Mary holds her. Charlotte never directly talks about her loss with Mary. When Charlotte asks if Mary has children, Mary conveys her discomfort at opening up. Yet, she shares that she doesn't have children and that eight of her siblings died young. In earlier scenes, Mary's mother (Gemma Jones) polishes figurines each day, representations of her deceased children. Mary tells Charlotte, "I had my work. I didn't need children as well." Mary is unique by being a child-free woman focused on her scientific career.

Mary and Charlotte show their love in divergent ways. Despite being aloof and closed off, Mary is sentimental; she treasures trinkets from Charlotte: Floral embroidery and a seashell-encrusted mirror she made. When receiving a letter from Charlotte, Mary lays it down, as if too sacred to open. She eventually puts it to her lips. It's as if only through holding these items does she fully allow herself to feel. Charlotte is far more effusive with her affection (she initiates hand-holding, kissing, sex), terms of endearment ("my Mary," saying she's beautiful), and praise. She admires Mary, speaking highly of her and her work.

As their relationship deepens, Charlotte emerges from her shell of grief. In the beginning of the film, Roderick chooses what Charlotte eats for dinner and silences her. Yet with Mary, she grows bolder. She stubbornly tries to move a fossilized rock on the beach. Charlotte becomes more joyous and affectionate. In the ocean on a sunny day, Charlotte and Mary swim, kiss, and laugh. There's a beautiful shot of them kissing in the water — a symbol of femininity — the sun directly behind and between them. Later in the film, Mary's ex, Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw), tells Mary that she was always distant in their relationship but Charlotte "unlocked" something in her. Mary remains reserved, yet subtle moments and gestures reveal that her heart has opened. Mary sheds silent tears after Elizabeth's words. This seemingly small moment of emotion is momentous; Mary allows herself to show vulnerability. They bring out the best in each other.

While the real Mary Anning never married, we don't know for certain if she was a queer woman. Anning was friends with both Charlotte Murchison and Elizabeth Philpot. In an interview with [link|https://www.edgemedianetwork.com/story.php?ch=entertainment&sc=movies&id=299101&writer_director_francis_lee_tells_another_queer_story_with_ammonite|EDGE Media Network], when asked what made him choose a same-sex relationship to portray Anning, writer/director Francis Lee said, "It's well-documented that she never had any kind of relationship with a man. But it is documented that she did have friendships with women. ... Having a relationship with a woman felt like it would be so much more respectful and equal for her and allow for growth within her world." Considering biopics and narrative films based on real people often imagine relationships and conversations, I'm completely comfortable with this reimagining. In fact, I welcome it. Also, instances exist of historical people's queerness — especially women — being overlooked or erased, so perhaps Mary was a lesbian.

While much of "Ammonite" feels subdued, the film builds to a riveting climax, a crescendo of emotions. It boasts a powerful, bittersweet ending that moved me to tears. "Ammonite" tells a beautiful lesbian love story while addressing problems of sexism, classism, and being queer in a heteronormative world. The film addresses separation (physical, societal, and emotional) and how we need to let love in. It shows how love can transform us. It's an uncertain ending yet we know for certain both women have irrevocably changed each other's lives.

"Ammonite" - ON DIGITAL, BLU-RAY™ AND DVD JANUARY 12, 2021

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