I was prepared to love Ammonite (2020): It’s an aesthetically-sleek period drama starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that’s built around sexual repression, gorgeous costumes, and the beloved enemies-to-lovers trope. But despite its powerhouse performances and technically masterful production, the movie doesn’t shine as much as its popular trailer would suggest. Winslet stars as Mary Anning, a gifted but poor and uneducated fossil hunter eking out a far-from-glamorous life in the English seaside town of Lyme Regis. Though Anning is a real historical figure, little is known about her personal life; one of the only facts we know is that she never married, leaving director Francis Lee to take creative license around her sexuality (notably to her descendant’s chagrin). Lee’s Mary is necessarily tough, an unbothered steel-nerved butch who can withstand both stumbling down slippery terrain and facing the blistering misogyny that erases her from her scientific field.
Enter Charlotte Murchison (Ronan) and her fossil-enthusiast husband, Roderick (James McArdle), an elegant and wealthy London couple who have recently lost a child. Given the loss, Charlotte is deeply depressed, which in 1840s England translates to a case of feminine frailty and a prescription for rest and sea air. Roderick takes a few clumsy lessons in fossil hunting with Mary on the early-morning seashore, but he soon leaves his melancholic wife in Mary’s care in order to embark on a solo tour of Europe. That premise delivers a predictable, slow-burn attraction between Mary and Charlotte, two deeply isolated women who find an anchor in each other after the initial speed bumps of their class differences and tempestuous moods. Eventually their connection ignites into a fiery sexual relationship, secretly enjoyed in their forgotten corner of England, though both women know their relationship has a looming and inescapable expiration date.
The movie has a genuine tenderness that doesn’t shy away from sentimentality and a romanticism that is all the more effectively executed because it is so emphatically unspoken. I don’t mind sentimental, longing gazes, and this movie has it in spades, in addition to expertly constructed sets and costumes that communicate the gritty unglamorousness of life on the dim English seashore. However, there’s a lingering sense that I just can’t shake: Ammonite doesn’t feel believable as a queer film. The movie has a sense of being posed or ticking off the boxes: Strong women chafing under the muffling strictures of a misogynistic society and male nudity presented earlier on and more casually than female nudity are laid out like breadcrumbs meant to lead its viewers to the conclusion that they’re watching brave and timely storytelling. The film’s mapped-on queerness feels like a form of branding rather than a genuine endeavor to step up to the plate and deliver.
A more tangible stumbling block for Ammonite appears in the form of its many uncomfortably specific similarities to Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, one of the best movies of 2019. Both period films follow a professional woman who’s respected in her field—a brusque, competent lower- to middle-class craftswoman—assigned to look after a beautiful young woman—an upper-class lady with a cloud of frailty and trauma clinging to her—in an isolated locale by the seaside. Longing glances ensue. The looming fact of the lady’s marriage haunts the couple. They bond over a specific musical piece played repeatedly. Eventually, in their private haven, the women embrace sexual freedom and their feelings for each other. Then that magical time comes to an end, and the movie grapples with the unspeakable emotional fallout for the professional woman. The similarities don’t end there. From framing of shots to musical motifs, Ammonite echoes Portrait of a Lady so closely that the similarities dragged me repeatedly out of Ammonite’s story.
There’s one very notable point of departure however: Sciamma is a queer woman and longtime feminist activist who was directing her own ex-partner, Adèle Haenel, in Portrait; in contrast, Lee is a gay man loading his movie with marketable blockbuster talent, a choice that follows his success with a similar film, God’s Own Country, three years ago. However, it’s Ammonite’s ending that successfully sets it apart from Portrait of a Lady. Lee’s film ends (and here, there be spoilers) with Charlotte inviting Mary to her home after Roderick’s whisked her back to the splendor of their London townhouse. Mary eagerly sets out for London, only to find that Charlotte has concocted a plan to keep her as her live-in mistress—a plan that Charlotte is certain Mary will be thrilled with. Outside the magical isolation of the seashore, the women find themselves on either side of a fundamental disconnect—Mary refusing to be caged and Charlotte certain that money, comfort, and one another will eclipse all other considerations.
Movies about repressed or secret queer romance—including Portrait of a Lady—seem to use queer relationships as an emblem of deep self-truth and rebellion against the confines of a patriarchal society. And for a good portion of its runtime, Ammonite takes that spirit and runs with it. The silencing pressure of being women in a decidedly men’s culture of power is part of the force that drives Mary and Charlotte together. However, the movie’s ending turns that trope on its head. The exceptionalism of their romance fades as Charlotte tries to structure it into the fabric of her acceptable London life. Charlotte recreates the confines that are so familiar to both women: the polite possessiveness of prescribing what life must and will look like for the partner of lower social status. Ammonite isn’t trying to be radical. It isn’t trying to say anything shocking through its repressed and silenced characters. There’s the very awkward sense, though, that Lee himself doesn’t know that.
A queer story shouldn’t be continually pressured to be a masterpiece in order to be made or to be enjoyed.
His previous feature, God’s Own Country, was another queer story about a complex, rural, working-class affair, this time between a male Yorkshire farmer and a male Romanian migrant, and it genuinely did the work of pushing the envelope past comfort and into complex questioning. It tackled questions of internalized homophobia and the violence of socialized masculinity, which by all appearances spoke more closely to Lee’s own life growing up as a gay man in Yorkshire than Ammonite’s lesbian period drama. There’s also the perennial issue of tackling social issues through period dramas. More often than not, I find using a setting of a time recognizably long-past—like 1840s England, for example—becomes a device to distance the reality of social issues from their nefarious modern-day manifestations. A drama about white repressed Victorian lesbians is allowed to be comfortably narrow. Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (2020) is an example of a period piece that remains uncomfortably present in its treatment of injustice and police brutality. But it’s far too easy to see Ammonite’s struggles as a product of a different time rather than battles that still define the lives of closeted women today.
To me, queer filmmaking means making something that not only includes queer characters, but tries to achieve something with real, radical potential in its technique and in its thinking. Portrait of a Lady hit that mark; Ammonite didn’t. But Ammonite does spark a different, forward-looking conversation: Maybe, truly adventurous, queer filmmaking is too much of a burden to put on every nonheteronormative movie that makes it to the big or small screen. Don’t queer audiences deserve the full range of moviegoing representation? Judging by the delighted response to Hulu’s gay holiday romance Happiest Season, the answer seems to be of course. A queer story shouldn’t be continually pressured to be a masterpiece in order to be made or to be enjoyed. Not every queer piece of storytelling has to be Portrait of a Lady or HBO’s Gentleman Jack. Bring on the lukewarm Oscar-bait like Ammonite and the awkward blunders like Vita & Virginia (2019). This is part of the long, inelegant work of normalizing queerness. Personally, though, I’ll always have a preference for the filmmakers with a radical rather than a progressive vision, like Sciamma, who push past the boundaries of the commercial and give their audiences new ways to conceptualize the joy, the beauty, and the promise of fresh, queer imagination.