Francis Lee returns with his first feature since 2017’s extraordinary God’s Own Country, the Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan starring Ammonite. Lee’s sensual direction and the slow-burning emotional development carried by the two leads helps Ammonite shine as a portrait of two women who help each other in ways they could never have imagined.
In 1840s coastal England, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) works alone discovering ancient fossils. The arrival of Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) and her wealthy husband, results in Mary being tasked with looking after the melancholic Charlotte. Whilst initially hostile to the visitor, Mary soon strikes up a slow-burning romance with Charlotte, with Mary drawing her from her melancholia and Charlotte sharing her newfound zest for life with the introverted Mary.
Lee and Director of Photography Stéphane Fontaine craft the film’s dimly lit sepia period aesthetics with an impressive conviction capturing the roaring English coastline, candle lit interiors, and sparse small town communities. Here Mary lives a quiet unassuming life – despite interest in her from Alec Secareanu’s Dr. Liebersen – whose charms Mary is immune to – Mary spends her days by the coast and navigating a frosty relationship with her mother (Gemma Jones). Ammonite sees no drastic change to Mary’s behaviour as Charlotte arrives with the fossil hunter making it clear that she sees the struggling new arrival as an inconvenience.
Part of the joy of Ammonite comes through the slow-burning passion that develops between the two women and the simmering sexual tension bubbling between the pair – lingering glances, uncertain movements, and seeing each slowly bring a warmth to the other. There is a cautious dancing around each other with Charlotte accompanying Mary on her fossil hunts, becoming invested in her new acquaintance’s work, whilst Charlotte soon becomes involved in Mary’s domestic live with the pair co-habiting in an efficient manner. Yet both actresses manage to convey the simmering atmosphere between each other – quiet moments are packed with a slight sensuality such as scene where Mary is struck with jealousy at seeing Charlotte inundated with attention at a violin rehearsal.
When the sexual dynamic between Charlotte and Mary begins, Lee does not shy away from capturing this with an explicit gusto. These scenes paired with the darkened, gloomy aesthetics of the film produce a well-textured result that captures what feels like the frantic releasing of the repression of queer sexuality of life in the Victorian period. The subsequent transition in the closed-off Mary is channelled impressively by Winslet who captures the lustful fire burning in the heart of the stone-faced protagonist. Ronan’s Charlotte’s zest for life and playful youth begin to rise as a result of the relationship, bringing some lightness to the previously heavy picture.
Yet despite this development in the characters, their relationship is a hard one to define. When the vigorous sex scenes are stripped back, it is not clear as to what bond that the women have – they are from entirely different worlds, social classes, and academic backgrounds. These transitions can also be quiet simplistic – Charlotte goes from melancholic to buoyant with little grey area in-between, despite the appeal of Ronan’s performance. Ammonite does pose the question that although these women find each other, is there a love and connection that surpasses that of the release of lustful queer repression?
Ammonite is an impressively textured watch thanks to the film’s period cinematography, Lee’s sensual direction, and the slow-burning passion explored through Ronan and Winslet’s performances.