Normalizing the Invisible: Francis Lee’s Ammonite

by Bryan & Heather

Inspired by Heather’s post last week beginning to explore LGBT representation both in historical media and historical sources, we finally got around to watching a film that has been on our radars for a while. Written and directed by Francis Lee and starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, Ammonite focuses on the fictionalized relationship between early British paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) and ailing upper-class housewife Charlotte Murchison (Ronan). The film is nothing if not bleak; the color palette never strays far from drab greys of surf and stormy sky, and as with any historical story of the LGBT community, a happy ending in the modern sense is out of reach. Yet despite this, we found Ammonite refreshing in its normalcy.

Any discussion of Ammonite’s accuracy must begin with a large disclaimer: none of the film’s events should be taken as biographical. Both Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison were actual historical figures, true, but there is no evidence that either were lesbian/bisexual or pursued a romantic or sexual relationship with each other. Mary in particular was never involved with men to any large degree, yet no surviving sources comment on her sexuality. The possibility exists, but only the possibility. Taken as a story representative of the many such relationships that must have existed at this time, however, Ammonite is brilliantly ordinary. While Mary and Charlotte’s “courtship” begins with the requisite awkward, inquisitive phase, it lacks any of the tortured, Icarian schlock that filmmakers seem to think is mandatory for any same-sex romance before the 1960s. Ammonite also dispenses with all the glamorous trappings often associated with period romances; while Charlotte is herself upper class, and her London mansion is seen briefly at the end of the film, most of the story takes place in Mary’s hometown of Lyme Regis. Middle-class life in the early nineteenth century is shown in all its hardscrabble dullness.

In perhaps the greatest departure from its subgenre, Ammonite contains no dramatic exposure of its protagonists’ relationship; indeed, save for a single scene, there is hardly any fear of discovery at all. Rather than the usual narrative of feminine oppression so common (and valid) for this time period, the film focuses on those groups—women, the middle and lower classes—who the nineteenth century patriarchy treated as invisible cogs in their machine. The opening scene shows faceless British Museum officials removing Mary’s tag from a prime fossil specimen in order to display it, and Mary never leaves that space of hardworking invisibility. There is never any danger of Charlotte and Mary’s discovery because men cannot be bothered by their existence at all; there are in fact only a few speaking male roles in the entire film, none of them bearing more than a few minutes of screen time each. This willful dismissal of social inferiors is later turned on its head when Charlotte brazenly kisses Mary in front of a household servant. Mary goes rigid with fright, but Charlotte reassures her that “It is only the maid.” A wonderful example of the complexities of social status and patriarchy in the nineteenth century; we only wish it could have been expanded upon and portrayed in a more negative light, rather than just a momentary red herring.

Ultimately, Ammonite was for us precisely what its story entailed for its characters: a welcome oasis, a sense of normalcy that, if not comfortable, was welcome among a sea of other less favorable offerings. An exciting film it is not, but for those looking for a subtle, nuanced portrayal of those history often overlooks, Ammonite should absolutely make your list.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.