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Ammonite: The Slow Burn That Fossilizes Its Viewers

Image courtesy of NEON

This year may have been terrible if you love socializing and partying, but if you were a lesbian (like myself) then the 2020 quarantine that we all faced became a little easier with so much new women loving women (WLW) content. June gave us Gemma Arterton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the World War II drama Summerland. October saw The Haunting Of Bly Manor tell the chilling love story between Jamie and Dani, making it hard for any of us to listen to Sheryl Crow’s “I Shall Believe” without uncontrollably sobbing. December hasn’t even ended yet, but there’s been a treasure trove of WLW content including Netflix’s The Prom, the OML web series Dating In Place, and Clea DuVall’s Happiest Season which is now on Hulu.

Unfortunately, with the good also comes the bad, and nothing felt more like a letdown than Francis Lee’s recent film Ammonite that has just become available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes. (It’s also in theaters, but you should not be going to the theater right now because we are still in the middle of a pandemic.) Ammonite explores a romantic relationship between 19th-century paleontologist, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), and geologist, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). 

I can still remember the excitement that was brought up with the announcement of this film. Mary Anning, who had been so overlooked and lost to history was finally going to be explored. Better yet, she was going to be played by Kate Winslet. When it was reported that the story was going to focus on a lesbian romance between her and Charlotte Murchison there was a part of the lesbian community that lost any ounce of composure (myself included). We hadn’t been this excited since Gentleman Jack began its run and introduced us to Anne Lister.

Even though there isn’t historical evidence pointing towards a romantic affair between the two women, the recent trend among studios is to take female historical figures and explore their lesbian love affairs (whether they are real or not). Sometimes it works (Vita and Virginia), and in Ammonite’s case, sometimes it doesn’t. 

Francis Lee fills his film with many scenes that, on paper, could have been a strong exploration into the empowering woman Mary Anning was, but instead felt as if someone was talking about something they just don’t understand. For example, the scene in which Charlotte takes ill and finds her way back to the Anning household and Dr. Lieberson (Alex Secareanu) is called to look in on her. It’s then he suggests that Mary looks after her since it is something “women do for one another” even though Mary protests it. He then leaves without any further remarks, and Mary just follows orders. A lot of the film finds Mary unhappily following the orders of men, and only sticking up for herself after Charlotte attempts to make Mary her mistress.

The same doctor attempts to flirt with Anning and asks her to join him at the orchestra. She insists on bringing Charlotte, and once they arrive at the concert nothing more is said or done with Dr. Lieberson. The entire flirty doctor storyline is thrown by the wayside and instead, his character is used as a plot device to segue into a scene where Charlotte attempts to make Mary jealous. 

Mary (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) walk the beach.
Image courtesy of NEON

The way Lee decided to explore the relationship between Anning and Murchison becomes misplaced in a film where it feels as though Mary has more chemistry with the fossils she’s hunting than with the woman we are led to believe she had a fiery romance with. The moment they meet, the energy felt between them is that of a student and teacher. Anning is easily frustrated with Murchison to the point of telling her to just go take a bath if that is what she was instructed by her doctor to do. There’s no spark that suggests anything romantic could actually happen between the two women. She begins to feel her “connection” to Murchison while she is caring for her, but during this time Murchison is actually unconscious.

It’s also during this time we are introduced to Elizabeth Philpot (Fiona Shaw), another throwaway character, to show that Mary is drawn to women. The only difference between her and Dr. Lieberson is that the instant Philpot and Mary meet, the audience instantly knows that there was a history shared between them. Their story quickly becomes more interesting than the one that is dragging on with Charlotte, and part of me wonders if that could be because Shaw, herself a lesbian,  understands how lesbian scenes should explore subtext and can play that off of Winslet.

This brings me to my big issue with Francis Lee having both written and directed the film. Lee, a gay man, is part of the LGBT+ community. However, just being part of that community doesn’t mean you have a complete understanding of how lesbians work, and how we form relationships and how it escalates from friendship to romance. Women’s brains act differently than men’s, and it’s not to say that men can’t write for women but they need to do their research. When Mike Flanagan decided to portray a lesbian relationship on The Haunting Of Bly Manor he brought in female writers and female directors. Most times it feels as though Francis Lee watched a few episodes of Gentleman Jack and decided that he could do exactly that, but Ammonite is missing the sparks.

The energy between Mary and Charlotte goes from feeling like a teacher and student to being more maternal. We are able to see Mary’s attention towards Charlotte change from aggressive to caring, but once Charlotte regains consciousness it feels as though she is using Mary as a way to be entertained. 

Editing is a very important part when it comes to the filmmaking process. It determines the style and flow of what the audience is about to experience. Ammonite‘s editing in the film’s first half felt as though someone had begun to do a rough cut, and then completely forgot about it. Some scenes felt as though they began midway and ended too soon. This could have been part of what led to my issues with Saoirse Ronan’s character.

Saoirse Ronan’s Charlotte is a character that really doesn’t know what she wants to be. I couldn’t get a handle on her. She starts out as a grieving woman who had suffered a miscarriage. She is thought of as invalid by both her husband and even Mary because of this act she puts on. Other times she comes off as whiny, and even once she is over her illness and begins her relationship with Mary it is unclear if this more lively Charlotte is an act or if the one presented at the beginning of the film was the act. The chemistry she has in her moments with Anning feels more like someone who is forcing themselves to have fun, but she reads as bored. Nothing in their interactions suggests that they would build to have a passionate love scene.

Speaking of that love scene. I understand that Francis Lee was uncomfortable about directing it. He’s been very open with the fact that he allowed Kate and Saoirse to choreograph it themselves, while the actresses have been open about opting out of receiving help from an Intimacy Coordinator. For those who don’t know what that is, it is a person that is paid to come in and assist over intimate scenes ranging from sex scenes to just quiet moments shared between people. They work with actors to make relationships feel real and the set environment comfortable for everyone. Gentleman Jack uses one, which comes in handy because both of their main actors do not identify as LGBT+ and, friendship and research can only carry a performance so far. 

There is a gigantic problem in the film industry and every time we believe we are heading in the right direction a film like Ammonite comes along and shows us how wrong we are. I’m talking about a little term called “the male gaze”. If a film is written and directed by a man, the chances are that a build-up of a passionate romance between two people will explode into a sex scene that ends up over sexualizing the female participant. This is because most times these scenes are filmed from the heterosexual male perspective. What would get them to sit through a two-hour-long romantic drama? Seeing a naked woman, of course. Men also tend to believe in “putting it all out there” instead of using the more powerful form of suggestion that is often seen in female pieces.

This scene feels as though it is just thrown in as a way for the film to reach some midway climax (pun intended) into its third act, but it is completely unnecessary. There’s no passion behind any of their motivations. There’s no direction in how it’s filmed. It really feels as though it was placed in that particular spot because the film needed to get these characters together and the audience needed a jolt to wake up. It’s the quintessential usage of “male gaze” since 2018’s unnecessary shot of Rachel Weisz spitting into Rachel McAdams’s mouth in Disobedience. If you are going to give us an unnecessary sex scene, at least give us one that is driven by passion, not just one full of shots that can be seen in any late-night Cinemax soft-core.

If you perform your job correctly and have built up proper sexual tension between your characters, then there are other ways of showcasing eroticism. Last year, Celine Sciamma proved through her film Portrait Of A Lady On Fire that the moments before and after two people have sex can prove to be more powerful than actually seeing the intercourse play out. Hopefully one day male directors, writers, and studio executives will get the clue that showing less can do so much more. The imagination is a powerful thing. Then we wouldn’t have Ammonite’s climactic sex scene make its viewer feel like that creepy neighbor watching from their window. A romantic climax (pun intended again) shouldn’t make you feel dirty to the point where you need a shower. It should capture you and make you believe that a love that powerful can exist.  

Ammonite also suffered from an extreme lack of dialogue. First off, not every film needs to be a Quentin Tarantino or Woody Allen production where there’s so much talking you’re afraid to tune out. A film could completely work on very little dialogue. Once again, look at Portrait Of A Lady On Fire. Most of that film’s emotionally driven moments are ones that contained hardly any verbal communication between the two characters. It worked because it relied heavily on visuals. Ammonite is one of those films that wanted to convey this exact thing, but the visuals in its scenes weren’t doing anything to help with the moving of the actual story. The other problem is that the dialogue that was used is very weak and unmotivated. If one were to take it out, it wouldn’t affect the scene. It wouldn’t change or build anything. When I was in film school, my screenwriting professor made a fantastic point about the importance of dialogue. It should serve a purpose. It should either help us explore a character, or push the plot forward. In Ammonite’s case, what very little dialogue was given did neither of those.

Mary (Kate Winslet) examines one of her fossils in Ammonite.
Image courtesy of NEON

Ammonite’s strongest moments are the ones that allowed Kate Winslet to explore Mary Anning as more than just part of an undeveloped romance. The scenes that showcased Anning’s relationship with her mother (played by Gemma Jones, who also plays Aunt Anne in Gentleman Jack) allow us to learn so much about Anning’s personal life, including the repercussions of her mother having lost so many children. Also, Winslet shines when she is able to explore Mary Anning’s diligence for her work. There are many moments when Anning is found at a table compiling her research, and you can sense her connection to it. Even when we are presented with Mary being able to see the fossil of her original find, the plesiosaurus, for the first time since she was 11 and had discovered it, there is so much love radiating from her. What lies before her is essentially her child. The look she gives conveys so much more than any scene she shares with Charlotte.

As mentioned above, I understand that Hollywood sees the LGBT+ community as a marketing opportunity and so has begun to jump on the bandwagon of “making everything gay.” We will show up to the theaters (well, rent them on demand right now) because we are desperate to see ourselves in stories. The problem with that philosophy, though, is that the quality of what we are given begins to deteriorate because the quantity is valued more. Ammonite is the perfect example of the problem. Mary Anning’s story is an incredible one on its own. She’s an incredibly empowering woman who was forgotten by history but is beginning to see a resurgence. That alone would get the lesbian crowd into the theater. We love stories of women’s empowerment. Yet, to take her story and overshadow it with a script that feels as though someone on AO3 wrote it is just wrong. At least handle her imaginative romance with the same care you did with her connection to her work. Ammonite would have been a far stronger film if it had, but instead, we were given a piece of badly written fanfic.

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Written by Katie Bienvenue

Katie is a writer, cosplayer, craftswoman, and Barista. When she isn't talking about Chainmaille she is usually found discussing some television series, film, or how to properly make one's latte.

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