Director: Francis Lee
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Alec Secareanu
The sky is an endless rubble of grey; a shingled beach all of its own, as though doubling the Lyme Regis coastline where Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) scours for fossils. An intense feeling of cold permeates Ammonite at all times, from it’s emotionally frozen protagonist through to the crashing waves beneath those interminably dour skies. Welcome to repressed lesbian hardship, 1840s-style.
Francis Lee’s entire film feels overcast. That blanket of cloud covering the Dorset skies seems so heavy, all of the time, made to feel all the heavier through the wealth of pregnant silences that make up a lion’s share of these two hours. Having courted much fanfare for his grim-up-north debut, God’s Own Country, Francis Lee journeys to the southern coast of England for this period drama, but brings the long tradition of British miserablist cinema with him. It makes you long for those clouds to break, just a little, and for rays of golden sunlight to shine down upon proceedings. Those breaks do come, and they’re all the more precious for having endured the wait, providing as they do the briefest respite from Lee’s perpetual, unadventurous gloom.
Anning’s toil with fossils – her painstaking efforts – are here cast as the embittered work of a woman long resigned to the idea that she is not allowed any happiness. Living on the coast in a rinkydink shop with her weather-worn mother Molly (Gemma Jones), Mary has receded into herself. As such she’s easily put-out; exactly how she feels when plucky Londoner Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) darkens her door, seeking to learn more of her science. This is a round-the-houses way of partnering Mary with Roderick’s melancholic young wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). While Roderick departs on a jolly around Europe, Charlotte is unceremoniously dumped into Mary’s care. At first Charlotte is afforded nothing but umbrage from her new companion but, when she suffers a fever, Mary has no choice but to nurse her new ‘friend’ back to health; a process which begins the (incredibly) slow thawing of their relationship. Hushed, needy sexual fumblings follow, but for Lee there’s always more misery waiting in the wings.
Here, then, are they ways in which the sun manages to sporadically burst through to shed light on this maudlin picture:
- In the clipped, rare moments of closeness between these cagey women; invited to a recital, the pair hold hands on the threshold. It’s a moment made giddy for how thoroughly we’ve been denied warmth or connectivity up to this point
- The way in which Mary’s blue bonnet spirals, reminiscent of the fossils she so carefully tends to
- Any of the scenes which seem rightly enamored with Saoirse Ronan’s bare shoulders and collarbones
- Any scene which features Alec Secareanu’s animated physician, Dr. Lieberson; a foreigner (!) who can be relied upon to bring a modicum of enthusiasm and kindness into the stifled atmosphere of the picture
- The suddenly urgent sex scenes.
On this last point Lee isn’t gratuitous. Indeed, one takes place entirely behind closed doors. We’re left on the outside; suggestive of intimacy so dear that it’d be indecent of us to pry. But, on other occasions, we are allowed to view the two women and, frankly, the scrabbling neediness is heartening. After all the staid tension, good for them, quite frankly. The frigidity of the picture recalls another of Ronan’s outings; the excruciating On Chesil Beach. When Ammonite uncorks the tension, it’s a joy to behold. It may sound voyeuristic, but there are so few pleasures offered elsewhere that both we and the characters need to get them while the getting’s good. The methodology here is contain and release, contain and release. Mary is so contained that, when she coaxes Charlotte to join her paddling in the shallows, it seems so wildly out of character that it almost beggars belief. Yet, we’re happy to indulge her. For a moment she’s allowing herself happiness and the vicarious endorphins are dizzying.
But nothing lasts. Clouds coalesce as quickly as they part. At this point, I’d like to start a petition vetoing the use of a character coughing blood into a handkerchief as a signifier of their imminent collapse from illness; a moment so cliché it elicited a collective audible groan from the audience I viewed the film with. Equally as clumsy is a third-act scene given to Fiona Shaw’s peripheral character Elizabeth Philpot. It’s an inexplicable and arguably needless outpouring of exposition that details why Winslet’s character is the way she is. It isn’t prompted and the inelegance of it is jarring in a film that more often comes across so measured, so judicial in what it shares.
Perhaps moreso than in God’s Own Country, Lee examines the complexities of social class in the relationship between Mary and Charlotte. What feels like an affront, where the schisms of experience lie, where these borders can be broken down – and where they can’t. Status is one of the initial points of antagonism between these two. It’s a slowburn joy watching this distance being eroded but, like a visit to the beach on a blustery day, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the coldness and the longing for better fortune. Both Winslet and Ronan are superb, there’s no denying that, but Ammonite also (inadvertently?) reminds us how rarely we’re afforded tales of lesbian love that end in happiness instead of tragedy or, at best, stalemate.