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
A good article found in the link above.
Thanks Richard. Like you, I thought the sex scenes were gratuitous and made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t mind the silences because I thought they added to the feeling of isolation and Mary Anning’s loneliness. I can understand her grumpy demeanour and think this would come from having to live a lie as so many did in those less enlightened times.
Apparently the beach of Lyme Regis has abundant fossils, there for the taking.
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Interesting article, thank you. It reaffirms my view that Ammonite demeans Mary Anning’s scientific reputation and simply uses her as a scaffold for a woke story.
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Yes…such a pity that the love story was the focus, especially as there was no evidence of a lesbian affair anyway. As far as we know, they were friends. Speculation re their relationship devalued the movie, IMHO.
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Thanks for another good-read review. I would not have been likely to want to see the movie but now I’m sure.
There seems to be a heap of stories/films based on this theme. The first and most risqué that I remember is The Children’s Hour, a play by Lillian Hellman, back in the 1930’s which caused an uproar on Broadway and was banned here from performance until after a film was made of it starring Shirly MacLaine. Mari and I eventually saw it performed at The Independent Theatre. Like the later play, The Boys in the Band, it moved along the LGBT debate….It is a tale about two women who run a girl’s boarding school. There is no certainty that they are lesbian and there are no explicit titillating scenes, of course, which adds to the drama and never let’s on. But a rumour starts to undermine the school as parents begin to remove their children and to ostracise the two teachers. In contrast, Lady Chatterley’s Lover seems to have had a more acceptable theme and, whilst banned here and there for a while, it was all the (shock, horror) fleshy bits that readers and viewers wanted to read about and see, and (hmm) condemn.
Your review suggests to me that the film here was intentionally made for the nude bits and I imagine it paid off at the box office. But nowadays I think the cinema-going public see such films for what and for why they are made. Nothing has changed in art appreciation where it is the things that are left out for one’s imagination to fill, and where one does not need the author to explain nor to illustrate. That’s art.
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I don’t believe it’s designed to be woke, which isn’t a bad word btw – be careful with that one – but it was hugely hyped and I saw it at the London Film Festival. I also went for a 3-star film, it does look stunning and the sound was wonderful but if your mind is dragged to those as a first response, I think it says a lot about the depth of the rest of the film.
Great performances but I thought we’d get more of a tribute to Anning but that wasn’t there at all. As you say, it’s just a passing side thought to the narrative.
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Nice to hear from you again Dan. In this context, I use woke to mean the portrayal of lesbian love for the sake of it or as if it needs cinematic normalisation rather than as an essential part of a film’s narrative. I think modern film now treats loving as loving without the moral shackles of days gone by.
Fair call, I don’t think it’s that though, knowing Francis Lee and his approach, but I also haven’t got past the fact that the story beyond doesn’t really give us much, therefore the focus on Anning could have been anyone really. That probably bothers me more!