‘That belongs in a museum!” declared the fearless, two-fisted anthropologist in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Unexpectedly, that assertion becomes the guiding metaphor of Ammonite, British filmmaker Francis Lee’s latest example of sexual special pleading.
Kate Winslet plays Mary Anning, the film’s heroine, a fossil-gatherer in 1840 Lyme Regis, a coastal town on the English Channel. Mary unearths rocks and examines and polishes their ancient impressions, for sale to tourists and eventual exhibition in the British Museum. She works with studied intensity, the same solitary grimness that hides her homosexual longings.
Lee and Winslet present us with the image of a hard stone to crack. Indeed, Mary’s true emotional definition remains hidden until she meets Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) who, as the wife of a distracted naturalist, suffers from melancholia. Sympathy opens up both women’s repressed feelings and Lee observes them almost scientifically — their instinctive intercourse makes private history. Sure enough, the fossils they dig out together — ammonites are marine creatures from the Paleozoic era — wind up in the British Museum, symbols of sexual liberation.
This melodramatic narrative fits right into American indie filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s domain, but Francis Lee is a less sententious proselytizer for gay life. Perhaps because he isn’t an American cultural militant — although England has them, too — his on-screen activism isn’t as objectionable.
But Lee’s “subtlety” can also be laughably blatant: Mary shrouds herself in dark plaids, Charlotte wears white or shows décolletage. His methods are especially transparent when Ammonite’s quiet, spare narrative leads to face-straddling oral-sex pantomimes where Oscar favorites Winslet and Ronan go headlong for GLAAD awards. Like Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdams swapping spit in 2017’s Disobedience, Ammonite’s refinement merely lifts up the skirts of what is essentially romance-novel passion.
Lee’s all-in erotic choreography (officially categorized in the industry as the work of “intimacy coordinators”) complicates current notions about patriarchal filmmaking and “the male gaze.” A tactile shot of Mary watching Charlotte sleep implies desire, but whose? Is Lee simply a male ally to lesbians, or is that image just another instance of masculine exploitation, like Abellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color?
Activists and cultural gatekeepers have not figured out the complexities of sensual representation but often use cinema to push social agendas. Lee did this in God’s Own Country, which linked a story of two taciturn gay male outsiders to the issue of European migration. But the actors’ emotionality overwhelmed God’s Own Country’s politics while Ammonite makes constant reminders of Lee’s social consciousness. His script includes patterns of female oppression: Mary’s introverted mother (Gemma Jones), who suffered miscarriages and child-death; Charlotte’s post-partum depression; and Mary’s own inability to express feelings. A past involvement between Mary and a progressive healer (Fiona Shaw) surfaces, and these reconciliation scenes credibly confuse both women’s sense of guilt.
Ammonite is an odd example of contemporary gender activists’ demand for allyship. So far, Lee has avoided modern, urban gay consciousness, such as the body-fascist culture synonymous with asserting identity and desire — the popular Nautilus equipment at gyms that derived its brand name from the same kind of fossil as Ammonite seems the likely source of Lee’s gay-male/gay-female parallel.
Lee’s main themes are private secrets and miseries — rather different from the societal blame that is the focus of Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow. An anthropologist-filmmaker, Lee is committed to preserving hidden signs of life, as in Charlotte’s defense of Mary’s vocation: “Miss Anning informs us not only of our past but our present. What sort of price would you put on this, sir?” Indiana Jones was more excitingly emphatic.