Everyone Loves Lesbian Palaeontology
Ammonite makes a deal with silence. It’s not really words that speak; instead it is glances, bets, and moments of trust.
As writer and director Francis Lee's sophomore feature film after the acclaimed God's Own Country (2017), Ammonite centres itself upon the prolific, yet undervalued career of palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her affair with geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan).
Like with Lee’s debut feature, we follow our protagonist as she battles against the elements in the harsh winds and uneven ground of the Dorset coast. By the time this story begins Mary’s biggest discoveries are decades behind her, leaving her to sell small fossils and seashell-encrusted trinkets to tourists passing through Lyme Regis. With Mary being a woman in 1840's England, the scientific community at large does not recognise her as a peer, while simultaneously profiting off her discoveries, and a prime example of such condescension appears in the image of Roderick Murchinson (James McArdle) a geologist arriving in Lyme as a self-proclaimed admirer of Mary’s work on the first stop of a continental geological tour.
Realising that his near-catatonic wife Charlotte would probably slow down his patronising strut across the continent; he offers Mary a conspicuous amount of money to allow Charlotte to follow her on her daily searches for fossils, but little does he know that they’ll find much more than ammonite on the southern English coast.
Mary’s position in society sees her navigating the poverty line instead of enjoying a life of acclaim in the scientific community, but within Charlotte's privileged position other constraints are made clear. Subjugated to a patriarchal system of rules and dogmas that see her husband deciding what she eats (she can’t even have sauce on her fish! Appalling!), where she goes and where she stays, Charlotte is introduced in Ammonite us as a delicate, breakable thing suffering from ‘melancholia’, as her husband puts it, from what appears to be a recent bereavement, and quite possibly, his almost pathological dullness.
Diametrically opposed, Winslet spends most of the time she’s on screen frowning. She is smart, closed-off, private. The two initially clash, but as the film progresses Ammonite does well to produce a quiet bubble for two women to love in what feels tightly insular as a setting. In an interview for LFF both Winslet and Ronan agree that the drama of secrecy is not what drives the plot, and I find that entirely accurate. Passion in Ammonite hinges on moments of connection, jealousy and freed joy, and they all happen in rebellion of the constraints of mid-nineteenth century conservatism.
Stéphane Fontaine’s cinematography lets us observe this relationship with such an incredibly close intimacy. It's almost stifling at times, occasionally proving hard to even make out what’s going on in the frenzy of fossil-finding or the rapid movements in Mary’s closed-quarter kitchen. This closeness of the camera allows for small, subtle movements to be charged with electricity. It’s impossible to miss the two of them holding hands for the first time, or the warm desire in Mary's expression when she sees Charlotte all dressed up. When we first see Charlotte, she is clad in an elaborate black outfit - suggesting a recent bereavement. Yet she seems to be mourning alone, her husband more concerned with how long it’s taking her to heal rather than the fact that she is healing in the first place. As Lee writes the women getting closer, costume designer Michael O’Connor has Charlotte dress in gradually lighter shades, and when Charlotte dedicates herself to excavating a particular fossil, she hikes up the cumbersome skirt of her dress like Mary had previously done, connecting the two with every technique available to the arsenal of these phenomenal filmmakers.
It’s these visual markers of change, as well as the two women’s personal interpretations of femininity within their performances to each other that make Ammonite such a special film. It’s the sly smiles on a surprisingly sunny beach day, the freedom of removing thick socks and splashing in the cold sea together, uninhibited. It’s in the small details that Lee allows us to treasure in his quiet, introspective feature about the love between two women, and it is entirely worth watching in 2020.
- 7.5 -
Maria Orlando is a writer that traded Italy's mild weather for London's constant drizzle. Oh well. She can especially be found writing about anything even remotely queer.
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