Moving away from the green Yorkshire pastures of God’s Own Country where two young farmers fell in love, Francis Lee takes us back in time and to the seaside in his second film Ammonite – a quiet, intimate tale of a 19th-century lesbian romance.
In the cold, grey town of Lyme Regis, palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) spends her days making incredible fossil discoveries on the rocky shores of the Dorset coast. A woman in a man’s world, she’s rarely given credit for her achievements but makes just about enough money to support herself and her ailing elderly mother (Gemma Jones). When tourist and fellow fossil-lover Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) pays her a visit before heading across the English Channel, he asks her to take care of his melancholic wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), who is too unwell to go with him. The two unsociable women clash at first, but they soon develop a passionate bond that only gets riskier as it grows in intensity.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that Ammonite has been released in the same year as Céline Sciamma’s critically acclaimed Portrait of a Lady on Fire – another seaside-set historical lesbian romance film -since comparisons between the two are inevitable. But unlike the award-winning French drama, Lee’s film doesn’t seem to aim for a ‘grand romance’ between its two leading ladies. This isn’t a love story for the ages, but rather a quiet affair between two women who aren’t entirely compatible but who find comfort in each other’s care. Does it offer much in the way of originality to the increasingly popular lesbian period drama genre? Arguably not. But it’s a story that’s easy to get swept up in all the same – a feat aided in part by Lee’s masterful direction, Stéphane Fontaine’s stunning cinematography, and a stirring classical score from Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann.
The film’s most fascinating quality is its character study of Mary Anning, whose real life as a fossil collector inspired the story. Cold, distant and hostile, she is portrayed as having built walls around herself, and she rarely focuses on anything that isn’t her work. In comes Charlotte – a quiet, downcast young woman initially as reserved as her new acquaintance – who chips away at Mary’s hard exterior over time to reveal her vulnerable and passionate self. Winslet perfectly captures Mary’s reticence, her stoic façade slipping in tender moments through subtle changes in her expression. Ronan is equally captivating as Charlotte; her youth and naivety bring an interesting dynamic to her relationship with her older, more experienced love interest.
As their relationship shifts, so too does the film’s atmosphere. Cold tones and harsh weather give way to warmth and sunshine as Charlotte unlocks her lover’s intimate side, which makes for some sweet, tender moments between the two. But despite these gentle moments, the film isn’t defined by any sense of innocence or coyness. Its few sex scenes are unapologetically explicit and a far cry from traditionally chaste depictions of female sexuality that have come before it. There’s not a single ounce of ambiguity or doubt about the nature of Mary and Charlotte’s relationship, which is refreshing to see and a worthwhile creative choice on Lee’s part.
As much as the story thrives on its quietness, it loses itself towards the end in a scene between the lovers that feels overdramatic and forced. Its purpose is clear, but it sticks out as a poorly executed moment that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the film. But while the ending as a whole is a bit underwhelming, the film’s last shot is a gorgeous final note that says so much with so little.
While Ammonite may not be a game-changer, it’s a beautifully crafted sophomore feature from an incredibly talented emerging filmmaker. Like God’s Own Country, it demonstrates Lee’s commitment to portraying LGBTQ+ relationships onscreen sincerely, and it’s undoubtedly a worthy addition to the British queer cinema canon.