Dir: Francis Lee. Starring: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan. Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, and Fiona Shaw. 15,117 mins
There will always be power in the image of lovers on a beach. Their interlocking bodies set against the wide expanse of sea suggests both endless promise and calamity. Céline Sciamma centered this year’s sweeping, swooning Portrait of a Lady on Fire on the idea. Francis Lee’s Ammonite, also a lesbian period romance, does so too. Here, 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her sickly ward, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), traipse around the rocks of Lyme Regis, in search of fossils, as their affections swell as the waves do.
But uncertainty is at the very heart of Ammonite. It’s not quite a love story, at least in the traditional sense. Nor is it an empowerment tale. It’s a film about how those we choose to love end up defining who we are. It’s impassioned, without necessarily being romantic. The women end up discovering more about themselves than they do each other.
Anning and Murchison were real people – brilliant and dedicated scientists, in an age when a woman’s work was treated as a mere curiosity. Ammonite opens with Anning’s ichthyosaur, excavated when she was 11 years old, being placed on display in the British Museum, the name of its male buyer placed on a label covering hers. The two women were lifelong friends. Lee suggests that something deeper passed between them. It’s an invention, but a plausible one – history is filled with love affairs that now only exist between the lines, unknown and perhaps never to be uncovered.
Lee also imagines Anning and Murchison as a classic case of “opposites attract”. The former is all hard lines. Her brow is knitted, the corners of her mouth so unused to smiling that they’ve calcified. She spits her words out like they’re chewed-up tobacco. Winslet is ferocious here – a performance that’s powered by steam locomotive, made unstoppable. Ronan, meanwhile, puts aside her headstrong characters in Little Women and Lady Bird. Here, she wilts. According to her husband (Roderick Murchison), who unceremoniously dumps her on Anning while he sets off on a tour of Europe, she’s a “little melancholic”. She won’t leave her bed. She’s pale as parchment. To the audience, it’s made clear that she’s grieving the loss of a child.
But when together, the lovers ignite. And their world – England as almost parodically grey and grim – comes alive with them. Lee’s previous film, God's Own Country, his debut, was a love story tied closely to the landscape. The same is true of Ammonite, which expresses intimacy through texture and sound – the crunch of pebbles, the scrape of tools against bone, the rustle of skirts. It’s a secret world, a cocoon inhabited by two women who have spent their lives suffocated by others. Their love is a metamorphosis. Lee leaves their future, beyond this protective shell, in doubt. But, as Ammonite shows, their love didn’t need to last for it change them.