Less than box-fresh from last year’s London Film Festival, Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan star in Ammonite, a visually austere drama about a lesbian palaeontologist that follows in the footsteps of Todd Haynes’s Carol by offering a spare, reflective love story illuminated by detailed sex scenes. Winslet may be giving interviews wondering why everyone is asking her about these scenes, but it’s probably an easier handle for audiences to get hold of than a study of a repressed palaeontoloist at the sea-side.
The sex of the director, Francis Lee, male, probably hobbled Ammonite as an ‘crusading–for-women’ awards darling, which is the kind of publicity this rather remote picture needs. Winslet plays Mary Anning, a real-life figure from the world of palaeontology circa the first half of the 1800’s. Anning moons around the Lyme Regis area, familiar from Karel Reisz’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, digging up various bits and bobs from the beach and selling them to keep herself afloat. In a burst of speculative story-telling, ie making it up, Lee imagines Anning in a fictional relationship with married geologist Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), and given that lesbian relationships were frowned on even in such rural outposts at the time, they have to be furtive about their burning passion to stop the prying eyes and minds of their community.
Ammonite takes its name from the fossils uncovered and displayed here, and for the most part, Lee’s film feels somewhat fossilised too, with few dramatic incidents and little spark between the two women. It therefore feels like a hairpin switch for Lee to be so explicitly frank about the sex scenes, which feel somewhat pruriently lingered over. There’s nothing wrong or immoral in seeing sexual activity portrayed on screen, but it does feel jarring and decidedly modern in this period context when the relationship they’re illustrating seems so undefined. Ammonite does tap into the way that women were excluded from taking part or getting credit for scientific discoveries, but doesn’t make much rousing out of glass ceiling beats very similar to those featured in Radioactive or Colette.
Lee made his name with his festival circuit darling In God’s Country, but even in 2021’s weakened awards field, Ammonite has struck out after early prominence. The Aunt Edna’s who would be seduced by the pacing and atmosphere are likely to be turned off by the bursts of headstrong erotica, and potential thrill-seekers are likely to be turned off by the languid pace and lack of anything actually happening. Despite fierce bursts of sexual cavorting, Ammonite is an ultimately rather staid film that will preach only to a minority audience; an uninvolving alabaster expression of a non-existent relationship.
Having checked this morning, the FDA website is listing Ammonite as out on VOD in the UK on March 26th. And according to the official Instagram account for Lionsgate UK. #Ammonite is available for premium rental at home on all digital platforms from March 26.
Thanks to Lionsgate for screener acess to this film.