Maybe it says more about the content that I seek out, but it feels like 2020 has been a busier than usual year on the sapphic romance front? I began the year with the sensational Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, was given one of my most pleasant surprises of the year by Kajillionaire, and just last week was welcomed into the festive period by Happiest Season. My cup runneth over, but we’re not done yet! One of my most anticipated released of the year since, it was now time for Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan to throw their hats into the ring in this year of on screen queer abundance.
In what I suppose should be termed as speculative biographical drama, Ammonite tells a loosely based story of Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a real life 19th century British palaeontologist who embarks on an intense love affair with geologist Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) after the two come together in Lyme Regis in the 1840s.
If you know anything about me and my film preferences at this point, you will know that Ammonite in theory is very much my jam, and I’m pleased to report that it was very much my jam in reality as well. In the same way that Portrait Of A Lady On Fire excelled in the use of weighted silence to convey its power, so too does this film. It might not be the full blown masterpiece that I believe Céline Sciamma’s French drama to be, but Ammonite certainly has its moments, and I loved every second of it.
There is a percentage of the queer female audience that are getting sick of the sad, melancholy lesbian movie tropes that are so often used in forbidden and secret love type narratives, but I can’t help it, they are my fucking kryptonite. Every stolen glance, each inching moment of tension and chemistry, they all add up to one of my favourite kind of slow burn cinematic experiences. Ammonite is definitely a slow burn, but at under two hours in length it doesn’t feel like it outstays its welcome. There is a huge difference between something ‘taking its time’ and simply ‘taking a long time’, and the film very much does the former to satisfying effect in my opinion.
Ammonite is mostly a portrayal of repressed, secretive passion, but there are also moments within the film that reflect some of the larger themes at play in the characters’ 19th century world. Professionally, brief allusions to Mary’s somewhat belittled standing in the male dominated scientific community show the wider attitudes towards women in her field, and personally, the character of her mother (played by Gemma Jones), a seemingly broken woman who lost eight of her ten children in infancy, is a stark reminder of the sheer struggle of life with which most women in this time period were forced to contend. No sweeping, monologue led points are made on these subjects, but the weight of them is present nonetheless.
There’s no arguing that Kate Winslet is the star of this show. As Mary Anning, her moody stoicism is not just a matter of natural personality, but also a matter of self preservation in a world that favours neither scientifically inclined women nor those with inclinations outside of ‘traditional’ womanhood. Winslet succeeds in saying a hell of a lot without words, and I feel like lesser actresses would have either tried to do too much with the silence, or fail in doing anything with it at all. I’m not sure that Ammonite is a ‘showy’ enough film to warrant much awards attention, but hers was definitely one of my favourites of the year.
As Charlotte Murchison, Saoirse Ronan isn’t quite able to match Winslet’s levels, but in some ways the characters are so different that it would have been odd for them to be operating on a similar level. Murchison arrives in Lyme Regis with plenty of emotional baggage, and Ronan effectively portrays that climbing out of that particular hole with the help of Mary Anning’s affections.
Being completely honest, I have felt stronger chemistry between other on screen pairings this year, but in some ways it almost feels like that is the point of the wider story being told. These women are from different backgrounds and have different personalities, and as is shown in the third act, their passion for one another only works within a specific set of circumstances. To that end, I’m not sure that an irresistible, utterly magnetic pull between the two would have serviced the narrative. Am I making excuses? Possibly, but that’s really how I feel.
Overall, Ammonite is exactly the kind of film that I expected it to be. A pensive romantic drama that acts as a vehicle for its performers to shine, and shine they do, admittedly some brighter than others. It ticked all of my personal preference boxes, and when a film does that, it doesn’t really matter what the wider consensus of its quality is deemed to be. I loved it, what else can I say?