Thirty-five minutes into Francis Lee’s buzzed about lesbian drama Ammonite a lesbian finally appears. Out actress Fiona Shaw is Elizabeth, a woman we learn little about except that she knows her way around an herb garden and had a failed affair with our protagonist Mary Anning. Kate Winslet plays Mary in this scene with the same dour emptiness we’ll see from her first moments to her last. But Shaw is a delight! With just a few lines, she has more chemistry with herself than anyone else will have in the whole film.
Ammonite is about real-life 19th century paleontologist Mary Anning and her love affair with society lady Charlotte Murchison. The film is framed as a love story, but it’s far more successful in its portrayal of a woman who chose her genius and her passion over a happy life. As I already said, Winslet is dour dour dour and not even Saoirse Ronan’s dynamic performance as Charlotte can add any heat to their relationship.
This is hardly the first lesbian film starring two straight-identified women. This is hardly the first lesbian film to be all-white, to be all-cis, to be a period piece, to be melancholy, to have an age difference, to center a grumpy old lesbian, to introduce a young woman with a husband. It’s not this one film’s fault that it happened to land within just about every lesbian cinema discourse imaginable. It’s not its fault that it comes out on the heels of the very similar and vastly superior Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But when a film chooses to do things we’ve all seen again and again and again, it demands a certain level of quality that Ammonite simply fails to achieve.
Francis Lee is a gay man and his previous film, God’s Own Country, was also a subtle, gay love story with grit and grime and two straight-identified actors. That film is far more successful, in part because Lee adds nuance to that film’s emotionally closed off protagonist. Maybe it’s just more difficult to create gritty realism with someone as recognizable as Kate Winslet. Or maybe there was a gap when telling this less personal story. There’s a world of difference between God’s Own Country star Josh O’Connor’s description of the intricately planned sex scenes in that film and Kate Winslet’s cringe-inducing description of Lee’s nervousness around female sexuality.
A film should obviously stand on its own separate from the press tours, but it’s hard to ignore quotes like Winslet’s when that lack of queer women involvement is so painfully evident on screen. There have been plenty of lesbian romances with two ostensibly straight actors that have sparked and crackled — this is not one of them.
My first ever sexual feelings were for Kate Winslet. I already had a crush on her because of Heavenly Creatures (sorry) and Titanic but it was Jane Campion’s 1999 film Holy Smoke! that did it for me. She showed up in her white crop top and just like that induced my puberty. Throughout her career she has oozed sex appeal even in Jason Reitman’s terrible Labor Day, even as a Nazi statutory rapist in her Oscar-winning performance for The Reader. Until her Woody Allen apology tour of 2017, Winslet was the straight actress I day-dreamed about most vividly. And, look, I’ll admit watching her dig for fossils with her grubby fingers did start to renew those feelings. But the minute Ronan showed up it just vanished. Winslet really said, yes I can find the sex appeal in a Nazi but an icy lesbian is outside my range.
Ronan, however, is fantastic. No matter the quality of her films, Ronan is always great and that’s no different here. What works about the film can be credited to her — and Fiona Shaw in her few scenes. We feel Ronan’s pain, we feel her desire. And yet I spent most of the movie thinking God Charlotte I know fossils are hot but I really think you can do better.
Lee is an accomplished filmmaker and, despite my harsh words, this is a totally solid film. It’s well-made and it’s thoughtful. But Lee’s style is sparse and that kind of sparseness leaves little room for this lack of romantic connection between the actors. When the trailer came out, people rightfully said that Ronan and Winslet looked like mother and daughter. The reality is far more unfortunate. It’s less that Winslet feels like Ronan’s mother and more that she feels like Ronan’s dull aunt she sees once a year at Christmas.
Look if you want to see Lady Bird sit on Rose’s face, the film will technically give that to you. But as our queer viewing options expand, I’m left needing more. Like maybe films that aren’t all white and all cis. Like maybe films that aren’t directed by men puzzled by lesbian sex. Like maybe actresses who at least pretend to enjoy it.