Queer films, and lesbian films, in particular, have long been fascinated with the past. Women’s contributions throughout history have often been overlooked and understudied; the lives of queer people have often poorly documented, and the queer identities of noted historical figures have frequently been ignored or erased. Belonging to both of these underrepresented groups, lesbians are particularly invisible in popular history. In her landmark 1992 essay, “New Queer Cinema,” film scholar B. Ruby Rich noted that a desire to explore and recontextualize history was central to modern gay and lesbian films. But, Rich wrote, “Where the boys are archaeologists, the girls have to be alchemists,” concocting their own historical narratives in the absence of formally-recognized accounts.
When it was reported that Francis Lee’s second film, Ammonite, would imagine a romance between 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning and another woman, many people were intrigued, but some, including a few of Anning’s descendants, responded less than favorably. Lee defended his choice to present Anning as queer, noting that there was no evidence that she was heterosexual and pointing out to depicting a historical figure as gay is no more harmful than assuming them to be straight. Lee has also said that the film is not a biopic, but rather a creative work that uses Anning’s life as a basis to explore themes of “class, gender, and sexuality.”
Ammonite, which I got to watch this week, opens with scenes of Anning (Kate Winslet) working: searching for fossils along cold, windswept beaches, painstakingly chiseling the artifacts from the rocks which encapsulate them. She makes a meager income, barely enough to support herself and her elderly mother, by selling her discoveries to tourists and geologists. Though many of Anning’s fossils have ended up in museums, she’s rarely credited with discovering them, which makes her bitter. When a wealthy geologist offers to pay her to accompany his sickly, depressed wife Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) while he’s away for several weeks, Anning begrudgingly agrees because she needs the money. Mary and Charlotte are initially hostile to each other, but gradually a sense of mutual attraction grows between them, communicated through meaningful glances and not-so-accidental hand touches in typical lesbian-movie fashion. This extended period of ever-increasing sexual tension is the centerpiece of Ammonite; after the two women finally act on their attraction for one another, the film becomes directionless.
While many lesbian-focused movies of the past few years have used historical settings to establish barriers to a potential romance, external hostility or stigma is almost completely absent in Ammonite. There are no subplots to demonstrate the potential consequences of being gay, nor are Mary and Charlotte worried about being found out. In a more well-developed movie, the choice to spare the lead characters the trauma of homophobia might have enabled them to explore other complexities of their relationship. The problem is that the romance between Mary and Charlotte in Ammonite is not particularly rich or compelling. The two women rarely even speak to each other; a few warm, casual conversations would have gone a long way. Additionally, the dynamic between them often echoes a mother-daughter relationship, which makes it a somewhat uneasy watch.
Throughout Ammonite, Anning remains somewhat elusive. Conversations near the end of the film provide additional perspective on her past and her relationship to her work; some of this information helps create a more complete vision of her character, but much of it feels inopportune and even contradictory to what we already know about her. In particular, the class difference between her and Charlotte is handled awkwardly.
As I reflect on Ammonite, I wonder whether it is constructive to pick apart and evaluate the representation of characters in gay films so fervently. I did not love Ammonite, but I don’t mean to unequivocally condemn it. I know that the film has resonated strongly with many people, and I hope that it reaches more viewers who will enjoy it and feel validated by it. A wide array of approaches to representing queer characters in film is an essential step towards normalizing LGBT identities.