When a wave breaks, there are two parts to the sound. There is the dull, deafening roar, the power of the sea taking over, with no nuance to the distortion of pure noise. Then, there is peace. There is the gentle sound after the crest, the soothing tapping of water walking itself back along the pebbles. Francis Lee’s Ammonite leads us far and away to this rarer sound, lingering in the deafening roar of the waves.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) is a renowned paleontologist, who, at least in Ammonite’s fictionalized tale, takes melancholic Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) under her wing, and soon, through her care of her, begins a tepid romance. The two women spend their days fossil-hunting by the sea, and their relationship soon means different things to each, with Mary accepting it as a brief respite that can coexist for a bit with the research she cares about, and Charlotte desperately clinging to it as a love that could save her from a life she dreads as a mother.
The difference between Ammonite’s bending of history and, say, Vita & Virginia, is that Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West’s romance is rooted in truth, with love letters exchanged. Despite her many contributions to science, there is genuinely no evidence to suggest that Mary Anning may have taken female lovers. Her relationship with Charlotte is a fictional sensation, and as nice as it is to see people like us in history, it feels disingenuous to do a complete rewrite, and ignores plenty of known gay women that have yet to have their history on film.
So… why add a fleeting and loveless same-sex romance to Anning’s story? Well, audiences don’t just want to look at rocks, or at least the way they’re shown here. In another world, this lingering camera would cast its light closer on the indentations of the fossil discoveries, coming closer to nature’s beauty instead of its indiscriminate attention to detail extending to shots like Winslet urinating on the beach. Her work is interesting enough on its own, and the film is a romance that shouldn’t be happening, and it knows it.
Charlotte pines for her, throwing herself into this idea that she can have this beautiful romance with Mary to save her from this life she’s expected to lead. Charlotte’s pain itself is the most competent emotional beat, with powerful acting from Ronan showing the very real consequences of her loveless marriage, and the loneliness and health conditions that have come with it. Two scenes of Charlotte come to mind when thinking of the better parts of the film. The first shows Charlotte walking down a staircase from a shed into the sea. The waves roar at the foot of the steps, and her dress clings to the back of her knees, soaked. She comes down ill the next day, and no one knows why- only Charlotte knows of her own impulses.
The second shows Charlotte and Mary kiss in sparkling flat water, swimming in a sea chest deep as they cup each other’s cheeks. It’s a tender bit of romance, this time not solely motivated by caring for a charge, and we see what Charlotte hopes to get out of this relationship. It is here we see that Ammonite is not a love story, but an anti-love story, a film about emotional labor, not romance.
Throughout, Mary remains in this role of Charlotte’s caretaker, and even in moments of eroticism, it’s not lost that so much of the intimacy between the women is to help Charlotte. Mary pities her at times, and though she does like the affections of the younger woman, the film’s ending is hardly tragic on her end when she never really cared further than her work. The lack of chemistry amplifies this, the two actresses playing an intentionally stilted dynamic so stiffly, more so on Winslet’s end, that it’s hard to see any more interest and love from Mary than from Charlotte’s husband. This is painfully clear in the film’s sex scenes, which are visibly awkward and clumsy, but not in a playful way. The physical intimacy, which was choreographed by a gay male filmmaker, and two actresses who planned to figure it out as they went, looks uncomfortable, and adds nothing to the film besides an emphasis that these women are not meant to be together.
It’s a shame the final product is so awkward and passionless, as the two actresses are perfectly capable on their own. The sound mixing is deafening, with no choice made in what sound enhances the story, so it’s all just the nuance less roar of nature. What’s meant to be an ASMR-like experience feels closer to sensory overload, and the detail of the period setting established through closeups finds the oven more important to Mary Anning’s fossils that should be the highlight of the film. Fans of Francis Lee’s earlier God’s Own Country may be surprised to find something wholly different, more concerned with nihilism and bleakness than human connection.