It’s exciting when a film comes along claiming to be a corrective to tired and obtuse depictions of women’s stories in history, which are often altered, muddled, or otherwise falsified in order to render them more palatable for certain (ahem, straight) audiences. However, suppressing said women’s varied accomplishments in order to make room for speculative lesbian sex scenes could be swinging the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.
Francis Lee’s Ammonite loosely recounts the life of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a talented paleontologist whose status as a woman in 19th century Britain robs her of the acclaim she rightly deserves. Her pain is somewhat assuaged when Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) arrives on the chilly Southern English coastline of Lyme Regis, where Anning lives—and has discovered several fossilized specimens—since childhood. Originally accompanied by her domineering husband Roderick (James McArdle), Charlotte is eventually entrusted to Mary’s care as Mr. Murchison prepares to continue his European travels. Mary seems to detest the chore of looking after Charlotte and teaching her the ropes of paleontology—particularly due to the bout of “melancholia” that Mrs. Murchison has been diagnosed with following a personal tragedy—but their extended time in each other’s company eventually leads to a physical and overtly romantic relationship between the two.
What is most puzzling about Ammonite is its dedication to playing up the ridiculous, misogynistic leanings inherent of the time while simultaneously diminishing the groundbreaking work and strong personalities of both women. One example is Murchison’s “melancholia,” a diagnosis seemingly weaponized against her by her husband in order to exclude her from his worldly excursions. In reality, Charlotte was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable geologist long before meeting Anning, her only malady being a rough bout of malaria she caught on a trip with her husband in Italy in 1818 which eventually caused her death a full 51 years later. The unhealthy relationship between Charlotte and Roderick is also fabricated with the sole purpose of enraging viewers, particularly during a scene where Mr. Murchison orders a fatty, delicious dinner only to decree that his wife eat undressed plain whitefish, surely to elicit a Lucille Bluth-esque “Good for her!” response from the audience when she eventually falls for Mary.
Similarly, the most exhilarating aspects of Anning’s discoveries and exploits as a paleontologist go largely unexplored within the film, such as an 1833 landslide which nearly killed Anning and claimed her trusty dog Tray during an excavation attempt. The film makes no room to portray her revelatory discovery of a fully intact plesiosaur fossil, nor the significance of her scientific discoveries supporting the then-theories of evolution and extinction in an era which largely believed that humanity was only a few thousand years old and created in God’s image. Even when delving into Anning’s familial history, the film drably offers an anecdote about her mother Molly’s (Gemma Jones) eight children who did not survive past infancy, but fails to mention that Mary herself was named after Molly’s first daughter, who died tragically at age four after catching ablaze when trying to add wood shavings to the fireplace.
While the film’s overall perspective of Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison is simplistic and frigid, there is certainly room to praise the leads’ performances, particularly Winslet’s reserved yet often humorous Mary (potentially one of the best performances of her career). Her ability to convey emotional depth with sparse dialogue and carefully calculated body language is truly remarkable, especially considering the overall stiffness of the material. Ronan’s performance is similarly commendable, but falls somewhat flat compared to the muted strength of Winslet. Winslet and Ronan portray both sexual eagerness and the excitement of defiance without fear of exposure, particularly during sex scenes which could easily bear less subtle markings of the male gaze. Sure, the sexual gratification comes comically quick—but realistically, the extra 15-20 minutes on top of an already 120-minute runtime might be masturbatory.
On its face, Ammonite refreshingly postulates that a historically significant woman had her share of lesbian lovers. “Lesbian historical revisionism” trumps “they were just gal pals” any day of the week, but shouldn’t come at the sacrifice of substance. That there is so much to glean from Anning and Murchison’s discoveries—including the fact that Murchison had a species of ammonite (an extinct prehistoric mollusk) named after her, Ammonites Murchisonae, in order to commemorate her contributions to the field—makes it all the more perplexing that the film decided to discard the wealth of information that exists surrounding the two in favor of reductive tropes and the hypothesizing of their sex lives. While it’s true that no one knows if Anning took lovers or not, Lee’s prioritization of unpacking her and Charlotte Murchison’s sexual proclivities is a reductive way of encapsulating the life’s work of two remarkable women.
Director: Francis Lee
Writers: Francis Lee
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Fiona Shaw, Alec Secareanu, Claire Rushbrook
Release Date: November 13, 2020
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine, and Paste, and find her on Twitter.