Festivals, Reviews

TIFF 2020: ‘Ammonite’ — A Sensual Take on Paleontology

“She sells seashells by the seashore,” a well-known tongue twister everyone grew up with, might have been about Mary Anning (Kate Winslet), a paleontologist in Victorian England. The latest addition in the growing catalogue of lesbian period films, Francis Lee’s second feature Ammonite follows Anning and her love affair with Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan), which elicited so much objection from her descendants and historians alike.

The film starts off at Lyme Regis, a small town in England known for its cliffside full of fossils. Anning has been living her life in solitary with her sickly mother (Gemma Jones) who she takes care of. She is a serious woman who is deeply focused on her work, walking the shores daily, finding and excavating fossils. The film sheds light on how much work she puts into the fossils she discovers, and the fact that her contributions to the study of prehistoric marine life has been ignored by the scientific community. Unfortunate as this may be, the real heart of the film is her relationship with Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the wife of Roderick (James McArdle), who visited the cliffside then left his wife to Mary’s care as he sees her unfit for travel due to her melancholia.

Mary (Winslet) and Charlotte (Ronan)’s love story is a slow burn that sears itself satisfyingly so.

The two women do not know each other well enough to get comfortable, but as Charlotte falls ill, Mary has no choice but to nurse her back to health. This blossoms into a relationship which opens Mary’s closed doors and brings back joy into Charlotte’s life. Charlotte is once again lively and beautiful, and Mary becomes lighthearted as their relationship turns loving and sensual. The two women are not the same as they were in the beginning. Charlotte helps out with Mary’s fossil work and does chores around the Anning household while Mary goes along with Charlotte in social events she wouldn’t even go to in the first place. But with all good things, it comes to an end as Charlotte returns to London and Mary is left alone.

Their love story is a slow burn that sears itself satisfyingly so. It begins somber, cold, and distant, which sums up Mary’s hostility towards others, including Charlotte. As the two women warm up to each other, the atmosphere shifts along with them. What starts off as a gloomy depiction of Lyme Regis becomes a sunny paradise. Lee’s take on this love affair diverges from the forbidden love trope most lesbian films fall into; it just focuses on their relationship and their longing for each other. Lee doesn’t back away from the explicit love scenes, which reminds me of his first film, God’s Own Country. Ammonite is just as sensual and genuine; Lee is not afraid to show the lust they had for each other.

Winslet and Ronan gave such solemn performances. Their use of body language and gaze was enough to convey the desire their characters had for one another. Yearning is the best recipe for a lesbian film because of its universality with sapphics, and the way it was shown through these characters and this story is so effective. Speaking of lesbians, the amazing Fiona Shaw appears for a bit as Anning’s old friend, suggestively her old lover, and was a delightful addition to the film. To accompany the strong craving for affection is an endearing score from Dustin O’Halloran and Volker Bertelmann.

Ammonite is a slow-burn lesbian romance film unafraid to show lust and love at the same time. It’s unfair to compare it to other lesbian period films just because of slight resemblance. It’s a film that has established itself with its own soul. Winslet and Ronan as its leads never falter. Lee gives us a look into a woman that is revered for her scientific achievements, even though the relationships is not historically accurate. It doesn’t matter if the romance is just a fictional take; the love that was shown through Mary and Charlotte felt real.

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