Sapphic Cinema: Ammonite Review

Courtesy Neon

The latest lesbian romance period piece (in what is becoming its own genre alongside Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Gentleman Jack, Wild Nights with Emily and others) Ammonite was high on my list for most exciting releases of 2020. Finally available on demand (y’all really thought I was going to a theater this year?), I’m pretty sure I’ll be processing this film for a while, mostly trying to answer the question: what did I just watch?

Was it a novel approach to the by now very familiar storyline of gays finding each other in a world of taboos and closets? Was it just Oscar bait with a diversity and inclusion storyline strong enough to reel in the heavyweight noms? Was it softcore porn you guys?? Should it be illegal for men to watch this film??

The film begins with Kate Winslet as Mary Anning, and she is tired. Whether scraping fossils clean, collecting rocks on the windswept Lyme coast, or hanging with her ailing mother, paleontologist Mary is surviving terminal exhaustion only by burying any feelings whatsoever beneath a pile of actual rocks. Her lined face, coarse hair, and chapped hands were earned not only from a lifetime of back breaking excavation, but from a deep isolation. There’s the poverty, decades of exclusion, based on her sex, from the scientific community to which she’s contributed so much. And no less dire, there’s the Lesbian Loneliness (iykyk) that has ground down her spirit.

Things begin to look up for Anning when a rich self-proclaimed scientist comes to her curio shop and asks for lessons in fossil digging. Satisfied with the brief education he receives from Anning, he pawns off on her his young wife, whose chronic melancholia is a burden to his lifestyle of being an antagonist in a Jane Austen novel. He f*cks off to France, not even bothering to write a letter to the woman he left in a random seaside town so she could take the coastal air and bathe in what must be an absolutely freezing sea, a course of treatment he hopes will make her less annoying to him upon his return.

Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan, does suffer from memories of a recent trauma, but melancholia is not her problem. It’s the crushing boredom, withheld affection, repressed sexuality, and being treated like Clara in Heidi that is the root of her problems.

Mary, intolerant of Charlotte’s sullenness and her determination to stay useless on their fossil hunt, recommends that Charlotte take a bath in the freezing sea. Charlotte comes back with a thoroughly Victorian chill, on the verge of death. Mary, probably out of guilt for having sent her into the sea, or maybe out of fascination for why Charlotte did something so bonkers in the first place, feels obligated to nurse her back to health.

That sets us up for a pretty sweet love story. Getting to that point in the movie is a test of strength on the viewers’ part. The movie is slow, repetitive in its motifs and mise en scène, and without a particularly compelling conflict. The dialogue is interesting, perhaps because there is so little of it that it breaks through a plot driven mostly by meaningful looks and emotive fossil cleaning.

Bearing the weight of a heart once broken by Fiona Shaw, Mary, the experienced lover, is reserved toward Charlotte. It’s Charlotte who makes all the first moves, in a very satisfying twist on the usual portrayal of May-December relationships and lesbian relationships in general.

Many have questioned the lesbian storyline of this movie. Mary Anning was a real person, who discovered what is now known as the ichthyosaur, at the young age of 12. She would go on to excavate the first complete pleiosaur skeleton. But there’s no evidence, no journals or letters left behind, that would suggest she was a lesbian.

It’s my opinion (probably because of my focus on geology in college), that paleontology is one of the most lesbian sciences. When the lab is outside, when you’re required to get dirty and muddy and wear practical shoes and fleeces, you’re looking at an avocation to which lesbians will be naturally called. Forestry, wetland ecology, these are Sappho’s sciences, I’m convinced.

Mary Anning also never married. There’s a reason that spinsters were associated with lesbianism. Not marrying in the days before feminism gave women the right to own property, or the right to not be property, was a type of gender nonconformity reserved for independent, rebellious women. Some would fall under the category of man-repulsed women, even if they weren’t gay. But let’s not kid, a lot of them were.

So yeah, between the mucky science and the spinsterhood, it’s totally legit to imagine that Mary Anning was a lesbian. And that really brings us to the most interesting part of an otherwise kinda dull two-hours.

The first love scene for Mary and Charlotte is very steamy. It comes a little more than halfway through the movie, so this clothes-on, brief encounter gives the relationship new complexity and depth. But with so much movie left, and so much of the movie’s marketability relying on the promise of two superstar actors in an art-house, indie romance, you know some for-real (artsy!) nudity has to be on the way.

And wow. Is it. The penultimate love scene left me breathless and feeling a bit exposed to be honest. I felt like they had brought to life the sex I have. The authenticity, the tenderness, the rawness between these actors said more about their relationship than any of the (sparse) dialogue throughout the film.

It was the face sitting for me. Face sitting in a lesbian period romance? I didn’t see it coming, and I might not ever recover.

As a feminist, after catching my breath, I immediately began to process my feelings about the portrayal of the sex. Was it pornographic? I’m not Gail Dines, but I did see some porn back in 2008 when I was in college, so I feel like I can analyze the violence, the alienation, and the male gaze that is inherent to porn. I know that “lesbian porn” is portrayed by het performers, for het male wankers.

This is not that. This is the furthest possible thing from that. While the movie was written and directed by a (gay) man, I didn’t think that Winslet and Ronan were disembodied, objectified or otherwise turned into stereotypes of femininity. They were active participants in giving and receiving pleasure. Pleasure and agency are not often the focus, in fact not often even present, in portrayals of women in bed. Of all the love scenes I’ve endured in heterosexual romance movies, I don’t think any of them have come close to showing the women as honestly as this movie did.

I do think it should be illegal for men to watch this film though.

courtesy Neon

I’m also questioning whether the love scene was gratuitous. It was certainly graphic, but turning it over in my mind, the development of the characters and the resolution of the film relies entirely on that scene. Sometimes ‘making love’ is exactly that — the transformation of affection and understanding into devotion and oneness. It’s the unmaking of the life you know in favor of a new life, a new perspective that colors everything that comes after it.

Mary and Charlotte don’t wind up together, but unlike other period pieces or lesbian stories in general, it has nothing to do with the taboo of homosexuality, or because one party is with a man.

Mary is dedicated to her work. While Charlotte is eager and unafraid to offer her a life of money and comfort, working class Mary would never be comfortable in it. She could never sacrifice her windswept coast, her cold sea, or her ammonites, however passionate or deep her love is for Charlotte. The ending is tragic and unsettling. Judging by the way the film has stayed with me for days, it makes up for the indulgent pacing and meager plot.

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  1. Been eager to check this movie out… definitely will now after such a well-written review! Well done, I laughed most of the way through, thanks Jocelyn. *edited because I meant I will definitely be watching it. Stupid auto-correct

  2. This film comes under the heading of ‘exquisite’, 😀 and I love this review of it. I got the feeling that young Charlotte was no stranger to ‘Sapphic indulgences’. From that very first kiss, and even before, she knew exactly what she wanted, and exactly how she wanted it … which led to that ultimate perfect moment.
    I felt as though final scene left things open to interpretation. Perhaps not as certain as ‘Carol’s’ ending, but still fraught with possibilities.

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