Ammonite is a lesbian film for our times

Ammonite explores a lesbian love story between Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison.

Well before Ammonite saw its November 2020 release, it sparked controversy for historical inaccuracies. A biopic on the paleontologist Mary Anning, the film introduces a lesbian love affair between Anning and real-life friend and peer Charlotte Murchison, the wife of Roderick Murchison and illustrator of various books about fossils in her own right. Historians and enthusiasts were quick to insist that no known queer relationship existed in Anning’s life, and that to imply one would be blatantly ahistorical.

However, director Francis Lee and stars Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan have all defended the choice. Notably, Winslet’s preparation for the role strongly relied on the reading of Anning’s remaining documents, including letters and journal entries, indicating a degree of preparation that relies quite heavily on historical fact. Meanwhile, Lee noted, “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context…?”

Indeed, Ammonite utilizes “another context” to profound results, and gives us one of the more interesting biopics in recent years, enlightening a new generation to the work of Mary Anning and adding a context to her that refuses to allow her historical record to be wholly defined by the pain she experienced in her life. Breathing passion into what easily could have been a dreary retelling of an overall quite sad story is what allows us to imagine this stoic historical figure in a new light. The affair she has with Charlotte Murchison is the catalyst for us to peer into Manning’s hidden inner world, but Ammonite finds a hero already well immersed in her lifelong work, and her inner fire is never something that is in question.

Image credit: Lionsgate (screengrab)

Ammonite introduces us to a middle-aged Mary Anning, who has lived long enough to see her discoveries be undersold and overwritten by male peers. Her early fame is mostly forgotten, and her struggles have left her closed off and guarded. She has been through a great deal of hardship, which shows in her movements and the way she interacts with the world, keeping it at an arm’s length. She cares for her money-obsessed mother, but barely speaks to her. The tourists who come into her shop to purchase flashy trinkets and to question her about her work annoy her to no end. When the enthusiast Roderick Hutchison shows up with his wife, who is struggling with loneliness and depression, he sees it best to leave her in Mary’s care while he goes off to uncover exciting new fossils.

Mary is forced to take the job due to her financial circumstances, but she resents the intrusion of the privileged Charlotte, refusing to play to her demands and instead giving her as much solitude as she can. Still, just as Mary’s life and career are defined by stifling gender norms, so are Charlotte’s; she’s married to a man who shows little interest in her and finds herself subject to his whims. Charlotte’s despair defines her interactions with Mary until they don’t; one day she chooses to accompany Mary to the sea and is surprised to feel enchanted and intrigued by the terrain. She insists on Mary sleeping in bed with her, and is increasingly interested in her work. Though Mary shrugs off Charlotte’s advances in the beginning, she eventually connects with her due to Charlotte’s insistence that she is not a threat to her work, but an ally to it.

In the same way Anning used her environment, Ammonite leans heavily on the natural beauty and decay of Lyme Regis.

Though much of the imminent danger present to Anning during her work goes unseen in Ammonite, in her life, it was always present. The area where she dug for fossils was prone to constant landslides, which is partially how she was able to find so many important relics, yet came with the downside of potential harm. She nearly died once in a landslide; her dog did die.

In the same way Anning used her environment, this biopic leans heavily on the natural beauty and decay of Lyme Regis. In the beginning, we see endless gray days stretch out before us, but as the film progresses, the light that flickers against the sea becomes more pronounced, and the sun occasionally peeks out behind its clouds. All the same, the constant threat of a landslide, real or emotional, is always there.

Image credit: Lionsgate (screengrab)

The romantic relationship between Mary and Charlotte may be fabricated, but it does have the basis of a real-life friendship. In Ammonite, the attraction Charlotte feels for Anning is character-defining in and of itself. A privileged woman who is surrounded by likewise rich hobbyists and enthusiasts meeting a woman whose entire livelihood depends on the passion and pride she puts into her work is a profound thing. At first baffled by Mary’s commitment to her toil, Charlotte quickly comes to admire and even to envy it. When she begins to see the deep-rooted kindness of Mary, itself buried like a fossil beneath her stony demeanor, Charlotte is entranced by it.

That trance reaches its peak when the two have sex. The sex scenes are graphic, but almost more surprising for their tenderness than anything else. The actors choreographed their own scenes, which leads to a visual flow that borders on the groundbreaking. After watching two characters simmer and yearn for one another for the better part of the film, the sudden explicit moments between them could easily be jarring, but in Ammonite, even that is a response to its environment. The desire of the characters is like the choppy waters of the sea, unpredictable, occasionally overwhelming, but always present.

Ammonite ends on a compelling note, with the two women appearing to each other, visibly defined by the demands of the time in their notably different clothes and demeanor, quite literally separated by the work that brought them together, gazing through the glass that stands between them. This glass may well represent the many superficial trials of their relationship, while the ancient fossil lies within, standing the test of time. These last moments leave us in a realm that is full of both remorse and possibility, hope and disappointment, an inability to fully understand but the capacity to fully love. Where we go from here, it is unknown, but our bones carry our secrets forever.

Ammonite is currently available on demand from your favorite platform (Prime, AppleTV, Google, DirectTv, etc.)

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