I am a sucker for lesbian period dramas. I know a lot of queer people find them annoying but I still enjoy sitting down to watch a period piece now and again. Maybe because I enjoy history and period pieces so much in general. I just love seeing queer representation in my favorite genre. So when I saw that Hulu had Kate Winslet’s Ammonite on I knew I had to watch it. Despite the fact that when I originally saw the trailer for it I thought Winslet’s performance looked a little lackluster, and the women both too straight. Still, I was sucked in.
The first thing I noticed was the silence of the film. I found this intriguing, the reliance on waves, people moving in and out of rooms, and the various tools that Kate Winslet’s character Mary Anning used. All of these sounds build the atmosphere rather than music, and even when there is music you still hear more worldly sounds than anything else.
Then we have the characters themselves. Mary Anning, older woman living with her mother, who spends her time combing the shores for fossils and shells. It was interesting to see a film that depicted women living in poverty, this is a topic I don’t think has really been explored yet within the lesbian historical drama genre. I loved that Mary is a soft futch. She doesn’t go full butch like Anne Lister does in Gentleman Jack, instead we see her wearing some dresses, but also wearing a men’s coat over her dress and pants under her skirt. It’s part practicality that she dresses this way, not just her identity.
Also can we please appreciate Winslet’s more muscled and broad body in this movie? Winslet did a good job of making her body look like she had been a working woman her entire life. I also love that she swears and smokes and generally rides the line between gender decorum of the time without making a big deal out of it. Mary is quiet in everything she does. Also I want to comment here on how funny I found it that Gemma Jones plays the mother, as she also plays the maternal figure to Anne Lister.
Then we have Charlotte Murchison, married woman and recently bereaved mother. Though the film never really takes the time to fully explore this pain in Charlotte’s life. I think that Charlotte’s character was the biggest issue I had with the film, as well as the actress who played her. I just don’t buy Saoirse Ronan as a period drama actor, she doesn’t move with time period appropriate decorum. You feel like you’re watching her act the entire time, instead of believing she is this character. I thought I would find Winslet’s character bland, but instead it was Ronan. I wanted to know more about Mary Anning, I felt how the world of scientific men had crushed her spirit. Charlotte’s character has lost a child but this very vague and unclear in the beginning. Ronan doesn’t look depressed or haunted by her tragic loss, she just looks blank. I also disliked that Charlotte is married, it’s a cliche that needs to be dropped unless the story is about ethical non-monogamy.
Ammonite follows these two women as they meet and are pushed together by circumstance, and how they eventually fall in love. I could say more on the cliche’s of this plot but that would make this review even longer.
I think another main problem with the story is that it’s written by a man. Throughout the film we look at three different women and their pain. Mary’s mother, even being a side character with little dialogue, is a woman who has seen all of her children and husband die before her. She’s a ghost of a woman now. Mary is brilliant but scorned by scientific men and unable to claim her work as her own. And Charlotte’s life has been devastated by the loss of her child. I really wanted to feel all this pain in a much more real way, but it felt like the film only scrapped the surface. Being a mother-to-be I can imagine the pain that Charlotte’s character would feel at loosing her child, but the reality of this pain doesn’t come out in a real way in the film. Through Winslet’s acting we can see Mary’s compassion for her mother’s loss, it’s the most palpable feeling in the whole film. But the rest doesn’t really ever feel real. I think this film would have benefited from being much longer.
The relationship between Mary and Charlotte is weird, at least to me. Bringing the two together happens in a half-hazard way, and the way they become friends is too fast and without really seeing a connection between the two of them. At one point, Charlotte says something about Mary being the most fascinating person, but I don’t see why she thinks that. The movie wants you to believe that the two are friends but they haven’t actually done much together besides walk. I wanted to see conversations between them, how did Charlotte know Mary was so fascinating? Because I don’t doubt that, I only doubt Charlotte’s ability to see it. Why does Mary, who is brilliant, find this quiet woman attractive? Is it just her looks? I feel like there would be more to her attraction. Behind Mary’s reluctance to become friends with Charlotte you can feel the pain of a woman who has been scorned before, she would be happy with a wife, but she’s used to be an outcast. So you know that she’s hesitant for a long time, what changes her mind?
Again a line of Charlotte’s stuck out to me. She says, “You look after me like your child” Which I felt sums up the relationship between the two and why I don’t like it. Charlotte is grasping for any sort of human affection and when it comes in Mary’s motherly form she clings to it. She’s clearly using Mary, not out of any malice, but using her nonetheless. As for Mary’s part in the relationship…again her motivations were unclear to me. I wanted more from this! In the sex scenes you see what Mary does for Charlotte, but never a mutual discovering of each other’s bodies and pleasure. Charlotte is also somewhat well off, and it’s implied that her husband is giving the Anning’s some money but never how much. Mary is constantly giving and giving, but there is no equality.
Another problem with the film lies in the fact that you can’t buy the attraction between either women. The first sex scene is late at night, and although it’s wonderful to see something other than finger fucking (yay cunnilingus!) it actually made me cringe. Alas, as good an actor as Kate Winslet is, and I do think she does a fantastic job for a lot of this movie, she is very straight. I think she did her best with the role and I commend her for being will to try something so obviously out of her comfort zone. As for Saoirse Ronan, nothing about this role suited her, and I bought her lesbian experimentation even less than I did Winslet’s. I would have loved to have seen someone like Mackenzie Davis play Charlotte. Then at least I would have believed in the romance.
I honestly liked the movie up until the last 20 or so minutes. The ending felt unnecessary, and warning spoilers ahead. It felt like the script had to come up with a reason for Mary to be alone, when they didn’t need any other reason than Mary herself. She seems quite content with her life and her work. So why the unnecessary heartbreak with Charlotte? The two women could have remained friends, long distant lovers even, because for some people that type of relationship works. I was thoroughly disappointed.
For me this film was a mixed bag, obviously there was a fair amount I disliked. But I also didn’t hate the film. I did really enjoy (minus the sex scenes) Kate Winslet’s acting. I liked the sounds of the film, even though usually I’m a huge fan of soundtrack. As much as I think that the writing lacked depth, I did admire the director’s attention to historical details. Each piece of clothing, the dishes, all of it felt authentic. And although this romance is fictitious, I do really apricate Francis Lee asking this ”what if”. After all we do know that Mary Anning died a spinster, which suggests that she could have been a lesbian. I read an article that criticized this direction the film took, someone saying that there is no evidence that she had an intimate relationship with Charlotte Murchison. But to this I say, we have no evidence that she was straight either, and it’s time people stop assuming that straightness is default.
So how is Ammonite? Sadly nothing remarkable. A good movie in some ways. A poorly done movie in others. There are parts to appreciate.
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