‘Ammonite’ is quietly revolutionary

Sunday, December 6, 2020 - 3:18pm

NOSELL

Lionsgate Films

“Ammonite,” starring Kate Winslet (“Titanic”) and Saoirse Ronan (“Little Women”), is resoundingly beautiful. It’s also boring. It’s silly and it’s heart-wrenching. It’s meticulously realistic and absolutely mad. 

Set in 1840, the film takes place in Lyme Regis, a small English town on what’s called the “Jurassic Coast” for its many fossil sites. Winslet plays Mary Anning, who is loosely based on a real-life paleontologist of the same name

Mary’s quiet days of fossil-gathering are interrupted when she meets a British aristocrat named Charlotte, played by Ronan. Charlotte struggles with what those in 1840 called “Melancholia,” but what modern psychologists would likely diagnose as extreme depression.

Charlotte’s husband pays Mary to let Charlotte stay with her for a few weeks, following doctor’s orders to “take the sea air.” Mary is annoyed with Charlotte at first, and just wants to go back to her fossils. 

This setup, barring the fact that the two main characters are women, sounds like the usual period romance. From the very first scene, though, it’s clear that “Ammonite” is different.

Minutes pass, and Mary doesn’t say a word as she wakes and goes to the beach to search for fossils. She’s shot with a hand-held close up, giving the scene an intimacy that highlights the sheer believability of Winslet’s performance. 

As it is for most of the film, the simmering orchestral score is almost imperceptible and one hears every one of Mary’s footsteps on the gravel beach, every pounding wave. It’s achingly lonely, but quietly beautiful. Even just looking at rocks, Winslet is electrifying. 

When Charlotte arrives and the romance kicks into gear, the film loses none of its realism or power, each of which stem from the incredible talent of its leading ladies and writer-director Francis Lee (“God’s Own Country”). 

“Ammonite” is almost entirely rooted in the grey, windswept color palette and rugged tranquility of its location. The movie’s quiet ambiance lulls one in completely, which makes its dynamic moments explode. A flower garden practically sears with color and the carriage wheel of a departing lover is like machine-gun fire. 

The cinematography is similarly constricted, sticking to close-ups and long-takes that keep the lead characters center stage, where they deserve to be. 

Mary and Charlotte’s relationship is rooted in the period like a fossil in rock. It’s queer love at a time when the term “homosexual” hadn’t even been coined —  a love of unrequited glances, secret sketches and candlelight giddiness, muffled by a locked door. 

That’s not to say the film belabors or brutalizes queer feeling like most depictions of the gay past. Nobody is outed, and nobody commits suicide. Lyme is a rocky haven where love can flourish away from the mainstream society that sought to quell it.

“Ammonite” is rare for LGBTQ+ film as it admits that, even without the impending weight of societal prejudice or self hatred, love can still be complicated, awkward, boring and perhaps even doomed. Still, the film asks, does that make it any less worth it?

While full of resonant joy, Mary and Charlotte’s story doesn’t come with resounding orchestral swells, hyperbolic declarations or picture-perfect plot points. Their feelings aren’t transcendent; they’re messy. There’s a realism to their dialogue and their sex, that is uniqely, sometimes shockingly, human. Their love is strange, even hysterical. It’s as different from typical Victorian courtship and idealized modern queer cinema, as a sea lizard is from a groomed poodle. 

The movie does not shy away from class division, patriarchy or mental illness. It also acknowledges what can make love hell for anyone, at any time: the simple, human contradiction of wanting independence and companionship simultaneously and getting so tied up in knots one just forgoes all happiness. 

Mary and Charlotte’s relationship may lack the splendour that makes films like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” and “Love Simon” incredibly popular. Yet its realism, evident in everything from its historical detail to its frank and unflinching depiction of sex, is an invigorating blast of cold sea air.

Uncompromisingly historical and queer, “Ammonite” is utterly unique. 

Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at warricka@umich.edu.


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