Despite having top-shelf talent, superb cinematography, and sumptuous settings, the queer period melodrama Ammonite (2020) promises much but delivers little. Its disappointment lies in the way the film’s central figure is diminished with an historically false narrative created as a pretext for yet another tortured lesbian love tale.
The story is ‘inspired’ by the real Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) who was a significant pioneer in paleontology during the early 1800s. Raised poor and self-educated, she achieved global fame at a time when only men could work in her field. Set in beautiful coastal England, the story shows Mary excavating beached fossils which were sold to tourists. One day a well-to-do London couple arrive in her modest shop: amateur rock collector Roderick (James McArdle) and his ‘sickly’ wife Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Mary teaches him some paleontology basics before he departs on a tour, leaving his wife in Mary’s paid care and for the health benefits of ocean air. As Charlotte is nursed through her depressive ailments, the women grow close and eventually become lovers.
The film’s centre of gravity is firmly anchored on Mary and Charlotte’s love story, which progresses from tantalisingly tentative touches and glances to passionate love-making. Mary is a surly recluse who never smiles, while Charlotte is an animated and curious young woman. An unlikely pairing, their bonding is nurtured in the beauty of the coastal village: pebble-strewn beachscapes, lapping waves and the sound of water rushing across stones. Other than that, much of what can be gleaned from the film must be inferred, as the spartan dialogue is silent on what either woman thinks or feels.
One might expect such a film to celebrate Anning’s place in history, but Ammonite is not even a half-hearted tribute to her achievements. It presents Anning as a cranky poor shop-lady who pokes around beach rocks to sell tourist trinkets. Perhaps the intent of the film is to portray Anning as a feminist or a victim of sexually repressed Victorian England. However, the narrative theme of lesbian love in Ammonite is a creative invention as there is no historical evidence of a romance between the real Mary and Charlotte. A prolonged naked love-making scene with one straddling the face of the other is therefore little more than gratuitous titillation.
Neither a biopic nor truthful history, Ammonite is still pretty to watch in parts. The story had much potential with many quality ingredients that simply have not gelled and a climax that lies somewhere between opaque and meaningless.
Director: Francis Lee
Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan