The Shell Seekers: Lee Recuperates a Scientist’s Legacy in Languid Love Story
As its title suggests, Ammonite, the sophomore feature from burgeoning director Francis Lee, is, in more ways than one, mired in our understanding and examination of the past. On the surface, it’s a daring recuperation of 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning, but what Lee’s really aiming for is something far more complex in its presentation of the erasure of not just women’s contributions to science but also queer narratives.
Gracefully evoking the titular, extinct mollusk, which was more closely related to living cephalopods than their visual evocation of the nautilus, the parallel symbology of both our superficial understanding of this shelled creature and the contributions of Anning corresponds beautifully, with Lee unearthing and shading in her missing narrative much like the fossils she explored. Assisting in this painting of a 19th century lesbian romance are authentically austere performances from Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, whose requited desire brings them both out of their shells.
In 1820s Dorset, paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) toils on her lonesome digging ammonites out of shores and cliffsides. Struggling financially despite selling many of her discoveries, which would find her name erased from them, she lives with her elderly mother (Gemma Jones) and remains closed off from the community. British geologist Roderick Murchison (James McCardle) visits her shop and begs for an expedition in hopes to make his own grand fossil discovery. Paying her handsomely for her time, Roderick foists his convalescent wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) on Mary, leaving her behind for several weeks in Dorset while he returns to London. Suffering from depression due to the recent loss of a child, the physically weak Charlotte soon begins to blossom under the stern gaze of Mary, who nurses her out of a sickness and into a romance surprising to them. Eventually, Roderick sends for Charlotte, but their continued attraction is challenged when Mary later travels to London in a rendezvous which doesn’t go as planned.
Lee’s moving 2017 debut God’s Own Country (read review) also depicted a queer love story in a barren environment, which also instilled a sense of inequality amongst its participants, the narrative ending on a note of hope for their continued romantic explorations despite the odds. Visually speaking, as shot by Stephane Fontaine (Elle; A Prophet), the film slyly hovers on careful details about an environment calibrated to keep women in their diminished place.
An opening sequence finds Anning’s name placard removed from one of her discoveries, replaced with a man’s name—the birth of her biopic, like her a life, a plaintive depiction of systemic erasure. We meet her when her limited popularity was already on the wane, shunned by scientific societies and the contributions of her life’s work no longer fashionable to the perfunctory interests of the public. As performed by Winslet, Mary Anning is a closed off woman, defined by her passion for discovery but who closed off an ocean of emotions years prior. Her romance with Charlotte also doesn’t result in a torrential outpouring, and she’s not so much revived as awakened to a hunger she had neglected to satisfy, so much so it had become completely dormant. We’re well over an hour into the running time before any physical manifestation between the women arrives (it starts with the tender application of a salve), and the small bits of erotic union are brief, but effective.
Ammonite, in Lee’s striving for authenticity, is a film not just about forbidden attraction, but the difficulty and tentativeness for queer people in a certain time and place to act on their desires. As such, it’s a film which plays with the authentic difficulty in this kind of clandestine courtship. For her part, after their first sexual encounter is where Winslet’s performance really comes to life through fluctuating expressions, the camera holding a simmering jealousy as she gazes upon Charlotte’s merriment alongside another woman at a recital a handsome Dorset doctor has invited them to (Alex Secarneau of God’s Own Country in a brief role).
It’s a film which lives in the spaces where we have to read between the lines, and Ammonite is reminiscent of those languid Merchant-Ivory productions, particularly 1987’s Maurice. A sly awareness creeps in thanks to the presence of other women, particularly Gemma Jones as Mary’s mother, and a woman who might have been a love interest, at least intellectually for Mary in the empathetic Fiona Shaw. Ronan has less to do as a society woman, but her presence evokes the advantages she has over a spinster like Anning, who rebukes her lover on their reunion, refusing to be “a bird in a gilded cage,” which sets up the next telling shot of her wasting away in a hotel room with dead flies on the windowsill for company. Setting up a stellar framing of potential symmetry in its final throes, Lee includes a fading glance of an Anning portrait, two extinct lizards suggesting a parallel subtext in this examination of what life might have been like for these two women, here immortalized in celluloid like two lovers from different worlds ensconced in amber, unable to live their truths in the time they had.
For those expecting the sumptuous passions of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) or the anguished romance and sexual expressiveness of Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), then Ammonite may seem to miss the mark of our growing expectations of romantic lesbian representation, both period or otherwise. But as an homage to Anning in its attempt to remain authentic, at least in our conjectures of her, Ammonite feels like the lived in romance of an introvert, a story of a woman who was never given credit for her contributions, here portrayed with the missing bits penciled in like the broken down ammonites hewn from the cliffs of Dorset.
Reviewed virtually on September 16th at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Gala Presentations – 117 Mins