Ammonite review: Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan set the screen on fire in this LGBTQ+ love story

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Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give a sensitive, and realistic, portrayal of an LGBTQ+ relationship in the 1840s, but does the world need another corseted lesbian love story? 

When the trailer for Ammonite was released in 2020, a collective sigh reverberated through many queer film fans’ lockdowned houses, as into the solitude we asked: “Do we really need another film about white lesbians in bonnets staring pensively at the sea?” Coming, as it does, swiftly after 2019’s wonderful Portrait Of A Lady On Fire

However, in the same sentence where my eyes flicker slightly upwards at corseted lovers being the predominant form of LGBTQ+ representation on screen, I’ll also admit that I’m very into period dramas. Furtive glances, discreet hand touches, and heaving sighs, are all my bag, and I spent the whole of Bridgerton trying to will a queer love story into existence. Maybe it’ll fully manifest next season…           

Ammonite, the second film from actor turned writer-director Francis Lee –  his first is 2017’s award-winning God’s Own Country– is a reimagining of a relationship between two real-life figures: pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning, and geologist Charlotte Murchison. In many ways his two films feel like counterparts. They’re both queer love stories between two characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds that deal with issues of class, set in beautiful but hostile landscapes, that reflect aspects of the director’s own life.

In 1840s Lyme Regis, fossil hunter and palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), is living with her mother (Gemma Jones). Although she’s renowned among her male peers – the 19th century scientific community is a bunch of misogynistic, classist, and patriarchal arses, who exclude her from their ranks and regularly steal credit for her significant finds – she must sell most of her fossil finds as trinkets, along with seashell-encrusted mirrors, to make money

So, when amateur gentleman geologist Roderick Murchison (James McArdle) swans into her shop and asks her to keep an eye on his catatonically “melancholic” wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) – who allegedly just needs a good dose of sea air to get over a recent life-altering tragedy – as he’s off to gallivant around Europe doing wife-free gentleman geologist type things, Mary is less than enthused. But, as Roderick offers to financially compensate her, she agrees. What follows is a quietly moving story about two women forming a relationship that revives each of them.

Watch the Ammonite Trailer

There’s been a lot of chat in interviews surrounding the film about the love scenes between Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, and they’re noteworthy because they are so well done. Winslet and Ronan apparently decided to choreograph the sex scenes themselves, with director Francis Lee creating a space for them where they felt safe and comfortable, and the results are a realistic and sensitively intimate portrayal of how two women really are when they’re together (minus the layers of petticoats).

This is not something films portraying queer female relationships usually get right. Often, sex scenes between two women can feel unrealistic, lecherous, and male gaze-y, as though they’ve been made by men, for men, without consulting women, which, in some circumstances, is exactly the case (much has been reported about how Blue Is The Warmest Colour is a prime example of this).

Ammonite is a great film. It’s beautifully made, and extremely well-acted – the performances from both Winslet and Ronan, who can convey more with a few sideways looks than many actors can with long impassioned speeches, are magnetic. It also has a great supporting cast: Killing Eve star Fiona Shaw pops up as a friend and former partner of Mary’s, and Alec Secăreanu (Gheorghe from God’s Own Country) has a small part as a doctor with gentle romantic intent – and I’ll never tire of stories about women who achieved greatness despite being marginalized in their time. But, afterwards, that little sigh of “really?” returned. Did we really need another white period drama? Do we really need another film where the love interests have such a large age gap between them? Should we really have another queer love story portrayed by heterosexual actors? And the answer, somewhat pointedly from those that hand out golden statues, is: “No. Not really”.

Ammonite was submitted “for consideration” to the Golden Globes, Baftas, and Oscars, but out of the big three it has emerged with just one Bafta nod for costume design. This could have something to do with Covid scrambling its release schedule, but I suspect it might be arriving a bit late for the praise and award nominations a cast and subject matter like this would have historically received.

In an interview discussing his film, Francis Lee said he felt it was incredibly important that he “elevated these women in every possible way he could… to the status they should have had when they were alive” as in their lifetimes they were overlooked, put down, and had their work reappropriated by men. That’s a poignant message, and Mary Anning is a fascinating figure who was ahead of her time in many ways, so it’s a slight shame that the release of a film about her might be a few years too late to have the impact the director desired.

Maybe Ammonite will be a slow burner – awards recognition isn’t everything (although it is great PR) – as it’s too good a film to fade away. So, if you liked Lee’s God’s Own Country, and want to watch amazing actors set the screen on fire with just a few meaningful glances, then Ammonite is well worth your consideration.

How to watch Ammonite in the UK 

Ammonite is available for premium rental on all digital platforms from 26 March 

Images: courtesy of Lionsgate UK / See-Saw Films

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Emily Gargan

Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.

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