Clara Sperow
10 November 2020

A few weeks ago, coincidentally on National Coming Out Day, my girlfriend and I went to the Mill Valley Film Festival’s drive-in showing of Francis Lee’s Ammonite. The film is about a 19th-century romance between paleontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and housewife Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). Its release date is November 13th, but the festival was showing it a month early. My girlfriend’s gay uncle works for the festival, so we reasoned, couldn’t a gay uncle help a gay niece see a gay movie? It turned out he could. The movie was sold out, but he secured us tickets. We cheered! Not only would we get to see the movie before its release date, but we also had an excuse to leave the apartment.

On the night of the showing, we got an early start—packing up dinner (spinach ravioli and asparagus, lovingly purchased from Berkeley Bowl), pillows, blankets, and ourselves into my girlfriend’s car, Barbie. Her car, formerly her grandmother’s, is fully fitted in hot pink zebra print everything—front and back seat covers, a steering wheel cover, dice, a license plate frame, etc. Barbie also does not have an aux cord, so we’ve been alternating between a “The Most Relaxing Classical Music of All Time” CD and Norah Jones’s It Feels Like Home for a few months. After twenty or so minutes of Norah Jones, we arrived at Lagoon Park in San Rafael. The sun was setting, and the sky reflected off the lagoon in such a breathtaking fashion that I felt like I was at Mr. Darcy’s estate—Pemberley for those of you enthralled with Jane Austen or Keira Knightley. 

We pulled up in line behind much fancier, much less pink zebra-clad cars. We were there thirty minutes early but we somehow seemed to be one of the last cars arriving. I squinted, trying to make out any of the other moviegoers from within their cars. They seemed mostly old and…straight? We tried to spot another lesbian couple. “WAIT,” my girlfriend announced, getting my hopes up, but then her face fell. “Oh, no, they’re just normal.” I gave her a pointed look.

The film festival had set up a large screen on a grassy field, and official-looking people directed us towards it, nonchalantly telling us to drive up on a sidewalk and over onto the field. We prayed Barbie would make it. Luckily, she did, and we eventually found a place to park and settle in for the night. I started eating my ravioli and asparagus, and shortly after, the movie started.

Everything I had read and seen about the movie prior had excited me. Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan as lovers? Directing their own sex scenes? 19th-century beach town? Paleontology? Wow. As a Saoirse Ronan enthusiast and English major going through a Virginia Woolf phase, I figured this would definitely be my cup of tea. The last movie I had seen in theaters was Portrait of a Lady of Fire, so my expectations were high, and I was ready.

The film starts out slow and moody with elongated, filtered shots of the ocean and Winslet’s character (Mary) finding and polishing fossils. The aesthetic feels very The Waves and To the Lighthouse-esque, which I can get into. Mary is portrayed as old and frumpy—she only cares about her fossils and hardly ever smiles. Ronan’s character (Charlotte) appears in the town soon enough along with her husband, Roderick Murchison (played by James McArdle) who wants to go fossil hunting with Mary. Roderick and Mary go fossil hunting while a seemingly depressed Charlotte stays in bed all day. 

We soon learn that Charlotte has recently experienced a miscarriage—she wears a black mourning dress and bonnet, attempts to sleep with Roderick to “try again” (he refuses), and is so quiet and distressed at dinner one night that Roderick launches into a speech about how much he “misses the way she used to be.” The theme of maternity, perhaps in conjunction with fertility, continues past the allusion to Charlotte’s miscarriage. In one scene, Mary’s mother, Molly Anning (played by Gemma Jones), cracks an egg while making breakfast and a sort of embryonic half-formed chicken falls out. We gradually learn that Molly gave birth to eight children and all but Mary and one other sibling have died. Lee shows us numerous scenes of Molly caring for and polishing six little porcelain animal figurines—much like how Mary cares for her fossils. As viewers we are led to assume that they represent her deceased children. The integration of this theme is strong; Lee gives us hints and bits of vivid imagery and leaves us to piece things together ourselves.

There are a couple of other jarring scenes that, unlike the egg scene, seem much less nuanced and purposeful.  The first is a close-up shot of Mary peeing on the beach, and the second is a completely naked shot of Roderick while he is changing. I would not identify as a prudish movie viewer or critic, but these scenes caused me to scrunch up my nose and search for deeper meaning only to come up empty-handed. I wondered why Lee chose to include these shots in the film and hardly any dialogue.

Eventually, Roderick leaves Charlotte with Mary, claiming that the sea will heal her and paying Mary heavily in compensation. Ironically, when Charlotte goes into the sea for the first time, she ends up getting so sick she has to be bedridden (conveniently, in Mary’s bed). The next portion of the film plays out as an attempt to show Charlotte and Mary falling in love, or at least in lust, but it’s questionable whether Lee really showed either.

Lee’s depictions of both Mary and Charlotte bother me. He paints both women as unhappy, unsatisfied, broken. While a typical romance movie causes viewers to swoon over the love interests as they fall in love with each other, there is nothing truly charming or redeeming about either of Ammonite’s love interests. It feels almost as if the women have been rejected by men and are dejected enough that they might settle for each other. Additionally, the actresses are nineteen years apart—Winslet is 45 and Ronan is 26. The lovers seem to have little in common, perhaps because they are not even part of the same generation.

Furthermore, there’s practically no dialogue throughout the film, so it’s clear that the characters are not falling in love with each other through language, but the body language and more subtle signals are barely present either. To be honest, the most sexually charged scenes other than the actual sex scenes involve the two women taking off their shoes at the beach. The first time they kiss is after they find a fossil together; they carry it home and polish it off then rather suddenly kiss and, I kid you not, seconds after simply kissing, Mary ducks under Charlotte’s dress and starts eating her out.

During this scene, my girlfriend muttered “Fossil lesbians…” under her breath, and random cars started turning their headlights on and off—a form of car reaction? Car clapping? Unclear.

This scene felt incredibly unnatural with hardly any physical or emotional buildup of any kind. There’s one other main sex scene in the film, and I have to give it some props. In an age when popular media largely defines lesbian sex with scissoring and films like Blue Is the Warmest Color, Ammonite featured face-sitting and masturbation in a much more realistic manner.

The rest of the film feels rushed and disconnected. Suddenly Mary and Charlotte are infatuated with each other. Mary starts smiling, and Charlotte starts embroidering violets on a handkerchief. Mary’s smiling feels unnatural because we haven’t even explored or unpacked any of the trauma that caused her to not smile in the first place. We have many more questions about her than we do answers. Charlotte’s embroidering just feels odd and in your face, especially because there’s no foundation for Charlotte even using a handkerchief or having an interest in art. Suddenly she’s embroidering the lesbian flower because she’s having lesbian sex? All of the maternal imagery drops off; Charlotte seems to completely forget her miscarriage and interest in children for the rest of the film. Mary’s mother, Molly, randomly starts coughing up blood, and soon after she drops dead. Charlotte suddenly gets ominously called back to London, but as viewers, it’s difficult to even have an emotional reaction to this, seeing as there was hardly an emotional foundation for the relationship in the first place.

Charlotte’s husband doesn’t reappear for the rest of the film, even when she goes back home. This feels peculiar because Lee spent much of the first portion of the movie beginning to develop him as a character (by this, I mean making viewers loathe him and showing him naked), but then he completely leaves the plot. So many of the plot lines, characters, and themes feel like this—half-developed and half-forgotten.

These loose ends led me to question Lee’s purpose in making the film. According to an interview with Lee by Mark Olsen for the LA Times, he claims his goal is to “elevate this idea of who Mary Anning is.” After finding out that Mary Anning was a real person, I initially dismissed the age gap and many of my other qualms with the romance; however, it turns out there is almost no information about the real Mary Anning. Lee made the entire romance up. He certainly gives viewers a perception of Anning they did not previously have, but it is one where she is sleeping with someone nearly half her age, barely speaks, mostly frowns, and has a disconnected relationship with her mother. Lee paints Anning in a critical and dreary light while barely developing her character or her fabricated romance.

What bothered me even more in Olsen’s interview was Lee’s statement that “I like authenticity.” He then elaborates that Winslet spent a lot of time at the beach and Ronan learned how to embroider. Although the beach and embroidery are aspects of the film, the central focus of the plot is a relationship between two women. Lee chose to portray Anning as a lesbian, and he chose two straight actresses for the roles—he can claim to value authenticity, but ultimately he used his limited knowledge as a man to animate the life of a real woman.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I didn’t find it to be much of an ending at all. I turned to my girlfriend and said, “Lol, what if it ended right now,” then the credits started rolling.

We pulled out of our spot and slowly made our way off of the field, passing by an old lesbian couple (one of them was, I swear to god, standing outside her car zipping up her pants), and gradually made it back onto the freeway and en route to home. I found myself thinking about the movie for the entire duration of the car ride and frequently throughout the following days.

On one hand, I appreciate seeing any queer representation in mainstream media, and there is some merit to well-known actresses taking part in this representation. I grew up consuming film like candy—for a while in middle school, I would watch multiple rom-coms every weekend, but I can’t remember a single lesbian in any of them. The only representation that comes to mind is Carol in Friends, but, to me, she’s a side character in a television show I barely watched.

It feels futile to acknowledge that there is bad heterosexual representation in film because there is just so much representation. If there was queer representation of the same quantity while I was growing up, perhaps the concept of loving other women would not have felt so stigmatized and heavy. I could have grown up longing for love in the same way I have experienced it. If there were enough mainstream lesbian rom-coms to be able to watch multiple movies every weekend, maybe I would have been able to sort through the toxic fictional relationships and the healthy ones (the good and bad representation) and figure out what kind of real relationship I wanted for myself. But, there wasn’t, and there still isn’t, so my expectations for the new films depicting lesbian relationships are high. I live surrounded by both subtle and direct homophobia and with my own 20 years’ worth of internalized homophobia, so I expect queer media to either solicit joy or make pointed political statements. Much to my disappointment, Ammonite did neither.