Review: Francis Lee's Ammonite (2020)
Amy Louise Smith | Lancaster University
Director Francis Lee sets his latest film, Ammonite, in a cold and windswept Lyme Regis. The film follows the burgeoning romance between nineteenth-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning and ailing visitor, Charlotte Murchison. Anning, portrayed by Kate Winslet, looks downtrodden and weather-worn as she battles along the shoreline searching for fossils, mostly ammonites, to sell in her shop, and it is clear from her clothes and manner that she is merely scraping a living. The colour palette is muted in blues and greys, and the sound of the sea and stones is harsh. Dorset has never looked so bleak. Yet after Charlotte and Mary's first intimate encounter, the sun shines a little brighter on Dorset's Jurassic Coast. The two find a companionship they had lacked, and this evolves into a powerful romance. For a film whose major themes – loss and loneliness – are so severe, it becomes remarkably hopeful. Lee's first film, God's Own Country (2017), creates an equally bleak and brutal landscape in a struggling Yorkshire farm. Landscape is a prominent trope in queer films: from the classic Brokeback Mountain (2005) to Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016). The recent Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) also sees the heroines wander across an empty beach. Even the gorgeous sun-drenched Italian villa of Call Me By Your Name (2017) isolates the lovers from the rest of the world. The intersection of loneliness and longing is, of course, the main currency of these films – something which Ammonite perfects. Much like in his debut, Lee uses dialogue sparingly and builds intimacy through rough and sometimes unpleasant displays of humanity. The rare tenderness is therefore even more intense, and the 'will they, won't they' leaves us on the edge of our seat. It is a carefully crafted film. The cinematography, the performances, even the sex, are never wasteful. It serves us joy and tragedy in the same scenes – Charlotte failing to carry in the coal is both humorous and deeply moving. The film is also laden with objects that serve as symbols of loss: Mary's mother's porcelain figurines, her father's tools, Charlotte's seashell mirror, and the numerous cracked and broken fossils. The iconic ichthyosaur is the most poignant of these, a reminder of all the pieces of herself Mary has had to give away to survive. The fossils drift in and out of the narrative, but never hold centre stage. Considering that Mary Anning is a towering figure in the study of marine palaeontology – and arguably its founder – her achievements are glossed over a little too quickly. We are shown a few examples of her finds, but not nearly enough, considering that she uncovered some of the finest and most scientifically significant fossils in British collections. Today, her work hangs in the main galleries at the Natural History Museum in London, and private collections worldwide. When her fossils do appear on screen, they are treated more like objects of mild intrigue than as discoveries that caused a dramatic shift in the study of palaeontology.
The same can be said of Charlotte, who Lee perhaps does a disservice. Fortunately, Saoirse Ronan is able to bring enough life to a character that starts out as waifish and catatonically depressed, making her a full and sympathetic figure. However, the real Charlotte Murchison was an accomplished geologist in her own right, not just the wife of one. The same is true of Elizabeth Philpot, the older woman with whom Mary had an earlier romantic entanglement. Philpot was a fellow fossil-hunter, and ought to be credited with the discovery of ink sacs in belemnite fossils which Mary and many others used to write and draw. Philpot is also thought to have encouraged Mary's interest in fossils and geology when she was a child. These women struggle in a world dominated by men – Lee assures us of this from the first scene: a cleaning woman is knocked aside by men carrying one of Anning's specimens, which they then relabel as their own work. The patriarchal Royal Academy of course shuts out Mary. This theme continues throughout the film; Charlotte's husband is selfish and controlling, and even the doctor who treats her, though kind, is patronising and intrusive. While the plight of nineteenth-century women is important to show, Lee perhaps downplays their triumphs a little too much. But then that is not the story that Lee wants to tell. His is a careful character study rather than a reflection on contemporary science. To his credit, as his exploration of the experience of being a woman considers the personal, rather than the professional, his film is able to touch upon the truly tragic – infant mortality, and an overabundance of grief.
Lee hints at a wide range of other issues too, particularly class and poverty. Although hardly spoken aloud, the differences between Charlotte and Mary are stark; Mary's home is empty and cold, Charlotte's full and luxuriously decorated. The conflict toward the end, which threatens to divide the women, hinges on class far more than it does on love: Charlotte wants Mary to come and live with her in London, gifting her a room and a bureau full of dresses, which Mary rightly interprets as an attempt to 'keep' her in a way that seems horribly unequal. The issue that the film is most cautious in addressing is their homosexuality – Lee barely acknowledges it, and it is certainly never named.
In the months preceding the film's release, numerous critics took to Twitter to query whether the romance was ahistorical. Even members of Anning's family voiced their concern. Viewers are left to speculate the historical plausibility of Charlotte and Mary's relationship. While there is no doubt that the two were friends and corresponded throughout their lives, we have no proof that they were ever more than that. Does it matter? Anning's solitary life certainly leaves her sexuality open to interpretation, and Lee is thoughtful and respectful in his portrayal of her love. Equally, the lack of explicit content in their letters can hardly be considered conclusive – queer history is so often overlooked in the archival record, and female homosexuality is infamously often mistaken for friendship.
Responding to criticism on social media, specifically when accused of 'fabricating a gay relationship', Lee argued that 'history is a creative process. He added, 'interestingly, the fiction novels about Anning where heterosexual relationships were suggested (with no evidence) went uncriticised'. Here he gets to the real point – writers, artists and indeed historians, have been colouring in the lives of historical figures since time immemorial. Unless his critics are condemning the vast majority of other period pieces, their hypocrisy says more about them than it does about the film.
Ammonite is not a biopic, and those coming to the film to learn more about the life and work of Mary Anning will be disappointed. At times, it may feel like a wasted opportunity to explore the phenomenal achievements of a female scientist, but that is not enough to undermine the film's other successes. Ammonite is beautiful and powerful, and while it may lack the drama of films like Portrait, it speaks volumes in near silence. To draw romance out of cold rock certainly shows Lee's skill. It is an unmissable addition to the queer canon.
Ammonite was premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and was released to UK cinemas on the 16th of October 2020.
Amy Louise Smith is a PhD candidate and editor at EPOCH Magazine. Her research specialises on popular culture in Early Modern England, particularly on the power of song in political protest. She has also worked on theatre and performance in the period. Read her bio here.