Period dramas tend to revel in feminine spaces, therein affording representation of women’s historically absent inner lives. Yet, the sapphic drama is inherently alternative, its cinematic integrity far easier to mishandle. The story of Ammonite is gleaned from 1840s rural England and follows Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) as the submissive accompaniment to her husband as he visits Mary Annings (Kate Winslet), noted palaeontologist. In the absence of her husband who vacates to Europe, and in order to soothe her acute melancholia, Charlotte is prescribed rest by the sea under the tuition and company of Mary, who, resistant at first, grows mutually infatuated with Charlotte, and thus a series of sexual encounters begin to unfold within the finite time they have together.
Intimacy, linguistic and physical, is at the fore of lesbian cinema. Women are seen to communicate a sense of passion unsolicited by their conservative lifestyles, and, critically, this representation often usurps interiority. The lesbian canon is peppered with male directorship, and while this should proffer the dictum that love is blind and female homosexuality can be earnestly depicted by anyone, it erases the specificity of sapphic experience in lieu of othering, fetishistic exhibitions.
Disappointingly, Ammonite is guilty of voyeuristic representation, as seen in precursive lesbian dramas such as Blue Is The Warmest Color, known for its controversial male production. Charlotte, who is Mary’s junior, represents a severely outdated model of the young girl experimenting with her sexuality, or, worse yet, her lesbianism is exhibited as reactionary, a defiant strategy against her unfulfilling heterosexual marriage. When homosexuality is bound so stringently to contextual factors, that which desperately point towards explanations for the potentiality of lesbianism, it annihilates any sense of genuine representation. As a result, Charlotte’s character, though fronted by Academy favourite Saoirse Ronan, falls rather flat; her intentions and humanity waver rather bleakly amongst an invariant landscape of vague relations and precarity.
To create a period sapphic drama within a world post-Portrait of a Lady on Fire is no easy feat, as proven by Francis Lee’s sophomore feature and its inability to acclimate to the genre. Speaking to the genre as a whole, locating sapphic desire within a bygone era can ostracise its unsteady representation, or, if successful, it can liberate women from historical fabric. Celine Sciamma’s 2019 feature Portrait of a Lady on Fire succeeds at such- its extra-linguistic intimacy, the gazing, the philosophical weight of its dialogue are utterly sublime and critically representational.
Ammonite is a technically elegant film, yet situating its representation amongst its peers expounds its failings. Other than its rather arid dialogue and sparing instances of physical intimacy, disparate from sex, its gravest sin is its myopic view of connection. Nothing holds together with much grip. Contentiously, Charlotte and Mary’s romance is framed as circumstantial or mindlessly sexual, unlike its cinematic peers (Carol, The Handmaiden) and their propensity to establish chemistry and emotionality in each instance of interaction. To make clear, this is unrelated to the brilliance of Winslet and Ronan and has everything to do with the film’s flimsy interpretation of sapphic drama. Sex scenes, along with occasional caresses and kisses shared in spaces concealed from public view, are the only form of intimacy the audience spectates. There is no intimacy integral to the dialogue, and this absents the atmosphere of any discernible, affecting quality. Tragic as this may be, it does not feel deliberate or engender useful insight on the repression of homosexuality — it reveals a distance between the director and his subject matter.
While there are moments of captivating, Oscar-worthy performance, if one abstracted the brilliance of its cast there would be little else to Ammonite than its illegible character interiority and thin romantic arc. It is, catastrophically, a tame and unfulfilling venture into the lives of two women who are owed far more sophisticated insight than the film empowers.