I’ve spent several months awaiting Ammonite, the lesbian palentology period piece whose trailer — a gloomy montage of muddy beaches and furtive glances — dropped back in August. From God’s Own Country director Francis Lee, the film stars Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet, and previews promised a steamy alternate history of Mary Anning (Winslet) a legendary 19th-century English fossilist.
Rocks and lesbians, what a fabulous premise for a film! But does Ammonite live up to the hype, especially when I can’t help but compare it to another recent queer period piece whose long, chilly walks along the coast were made even more romantic because they were in French?
While Ammonite does not offer the raw sensuality of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (I mean, does anything?), what we do get is Kate Winslet, whose days are spent eating hard-boiled eggs and plodding along the beach in a mess of petticoats. She’s terribly glum, shacked up at home with her dying mother, but she finally softens when one Charlotte Murchison (Ronan), the wife of an obnoxious young geologist, is left in her care.
Charlotte is suffering from “melancholia,” and falls ill after needlessly plunging into the frigid ocean one day. Mary, equally baffled by and attracted to the young woman, nurses her back to health. (Their dynamic is so prim and mannered at first that I’m sure there will be many a poor soul tricked into thinking Ammonite is a story about platonic young paleontologists in 19th-century England.) However, things finally heat up when Charlotte emerges from her illness full of beans and flirty glances, shedding her dour black gowns for a pair of billowy bloomers, and proceeds to help Mary dig for her “rock things.”
What proceeds is a lot of my favorite variety of flirting, the old-timey kind, wherein furtive touches of the wrist count as seductive, and a glimpse of an ankle causes much blushing. Soon, the women abandon their rocks and engage in a sweaty, furtive affair (in an interview about the film, Winslet compared her oral sex scenes with Ronan to eating a sandwich, which I hate to say will actually make sense after watching the film).
It’s a little bit sexy, but alas, not satisfying. This is made worse by the fact that Mary and Charlotte’s dalliance overshadows the paleontology B plot, which is very rude to the real Anning, who has been hailed as the “Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew.” As Sabrina Imbler, author of Dyke (geology) — a horny coming-of-age novel about a queer volcano and other geology things — points out in her review of Ammonite, there is no evidence that Anning was a lesbian. Neither Imbler nor I am opposed to reimagining Anning as queer, but I ask, if you’re going to make a movie that revolves around her great gay romance, at least make it titillating, no? Instead, Anning’s accomplishments, which per Imber, include the discovery of “a legendary ichthyosaur fossil and two nearly complete plesiosaurs” are overshadowed by an affair that’s duller and slower than a rock formation.
Ammonite is available on Amazon Prime December 4th.