“Ammonite” Review: Saoirse Ronan and Gay Fossils Can’t Salvage This Drab Affair

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.

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Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 192 articles for us.

35 Comments

    • I actually am a lesbian intimacy coordinator, and unfortunately while we are becoming more and more common in the tv world, movie directors are often really resist to hiring us, which in my opinion is part of why movie sec is often so boring and drab. And I have to say some of the stories that have come out of this set (Kate Winslet rescheduling the sex scenes for Ronan’s birthday specifically) would not fly on a set with an actual intimacy coordinator.

  1. I’m convinced that the obsession with lesbian period pieces is just an excuse to keep portraying lesbian relationships as angsty and shrouded with shame. Can we please have some happy lesbians?? for once???

    • i think your a hundred percent correct! i feel like the more progressive the 21st century gets the more i keep seeing lesbian period pieces, normally directed by *cough* men. they love a movie that ends with a queer woman having to go back to a man or dying which says a lot about how the mainstream film industry really feels about us

  2. This seems like the inverse of my controversial opinion that Rooney Mara wasn’t well casted in the role of Therese and that Cate Blanchett had to do a lot of the work to sell the relationship at all with her dynamic performance, complete with a supporting character played by an actual queer actor that adds energy to the movie. It’s sort of a side by side comparison of when a straight person playing gay can go right and why it can go wrong, which convinces me that very talented straight people can play gay well if mixed in with a predominately queer cast.

  3. Damn.
    I had high hopes for this one. God’s own country is probably one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen. I saw it in a cinema, and while it was uncomfortable to watch at times, it stayed with me until this day.
    Also, as you said, Kate Winslet– What could go wrong?
    Ah well, Kate Winslet isn’t that hot since she lost weight anyway–

  4. Your review is far more entertaining than the film itself. Also – the stark contrast between what you describe here and the delightful sex scene in Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which still certainly deserves some of the same critiques re:cis-ness, whiteness, period piece, etc., is astounding. Almost like having lesbians/queer women involved is essential. I’m also reminded of that quote from the NYTimes article about Disobedience:

    “Did Ms. Weisz do any research for the love scene with lesbian friends?

    “Nooooo,” she said. “You can’t ever ask people how they have sex. Sebastian storyboarded it, so it was all his idea to have just faces and spittle and wetness and the other woman’s face.”

    Yikes!

      • Actually, you’re totally right, the fact that Portrait is a period piece is lovely, esp. given the act of historical recovery it does – imagining queer women’s lives in the fullness of the past, without falling into the stereotypes therein. Portrait is my fave movie of all time, and I’m also a historian who drools over well done period pieces, so I was trying to be objective, lol.

  5. As usual I find myself at odds with the reviews on this site. What an exasperatingly self-satisfied review. For the record: it’s the best performance of Winslet’s career. Which is saying something. The plot works and makes sense. The film is beautifully-made and edited. The lack of dialog is frankly refreshing.

    If people would stop reviewing according to personality and imagined reader expectations, and stick with the actual material under consideration, we might get some better reviews. Been years since I checked out Autostraddle. Will be years before I bother again. Our ‘community’s’ insistence on proscriptive responses to art according to the politics du jour is a real disservice to all lesbians of all tastes, everywhere.

    • I’m not sure it was Winslet’s best but it was certainly a stellar performance in my opinion as well. I thought the leads definitely had chemistry, and I thoroughly delighted in watching Charlotte be the seductress, that was unexpected. I also thought the sex scenes were quite well done. I often squirm or have to turn away during sex scenes, they’re so absolutely dreadful. But not these.
      I’m not saying it’s a perfect movie, but I don’t think it’s deserving of this panning. A very well written review, Drew’s prose delivers as usual. But also, yeah, a little smug for my taste this round.
      I think what enrages me most is calling Winslet’s character “dour dour dour.” I completely related to her steely exterior. Her posture spoke a thousand words. To dismiss her as “dour dour dour”… To that I say “no no no”…

    • I mostly agree. Things aren’t going to be perfect all the time. And I think the level criticism is a little extreme. Laude the good parts and give constructive criticism to what needs to change and keep pushing for it.

      I really liked the film, and I thought it was well done. Of course some things could have been done better as always , but overall I really enjoyed it.

    • I meant to post this here, I mostly agree. Things aren’t going to be perfect all the time. And I think the level criticism is a little extreme. Laude the good parts and give constructive criticism to what needs to change and keep pushing for it.

      I really liked the film, and I thought it was well done. Of course some things could have been done better as always , but overall I really enjoyed it.

      Loading…

    • Agree. The movie is one of my new favorite lesbian dramas. It’s unfortunate that this person is trying so hard to tear it down..? I don’t know. Most of the criticism seems to stem from the fact that they just don’t like slower drama type movies. And the sex part was just wrong lmao, Kate and saoirse choreographed their own sex scenes. Both of which left me feeling very content with how they portrayed lesbian sex on screen for once.

      • Ugh, what is it lately with the comments on Autostraddle? It feels like every time I open the website, there’s someone in the “latest comments” section leaving weird comments under Drew’s pieces. Honestly, “this person”? Wtf. Is there some kind of weird terf troll hole that started targeting autostraddle?

        • Oh, thank goodness someone else noticed. I feel like trans and PoC authors on here have been getting hit with the weird third person depersonalization way more often- maybe it’s because with AfterEllen gone, all of their readers have begrudgingly migrated here for lesbian media coverage.

          • Maybe you’re right. I hope they find something else to do, it really creeps me out how they go through old articles and leave these dehumanising comments. And it’s always so blatantly just below the line that justifies deleting them with these weird I-just-wanna-talk undertones.

          • I’ve noticed this too (and there has also been some blatant transphobia, like in the comments on the Danish Girl article). This third-person pronoun business could be explained away as a usage of generic-they, but also like, her bio and pronouns are right there? If it was just one comment I wouldn’t assume any malicious intent, but there does seem to be a pattern.

  6. “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.”

    Sorry, maybe I’m not up on my lesbian film lately, but what other movies have come out recently that do all of these things? The only other period piece I can think of is Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and that only matches the first 4 of these… I promise I’m not trying to nitpick! I just want to understand where the intense criticism is coming from. I thought Ammonite was incredibly well-crafted and well-researched. As a period piece, it’s leagues ahead of Portrait of a Lady, which is beautiful, but definitely going for a kind of fantasy world whereas this movie is grounded in gritty, early 19th c. realism. I definitely felt like there was chemistry, and the sex scenes were some of the most refreshingly real-feeling of any I have seen in a LONG time. I don’t agree that the absence of queer women is felt in this film…in fact, one of the things I kept thinking as I watched Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan lace up their leather boots and tuck their skirts up into their drawers to much around in the mud and dig up a giant fossil was “this is the gayest movie I have EVER seen, maybe in my entire life.”

  7. I really enjoyed ammomite. If anyone is reading this, I would say go for it if you like period pieces. There’s a lot of unspoken tension and energy in this one that made me feel very tingly and warm and sweet while I was watching.
    Haven’t felt this way about any film since Carol to be honest. Some scenes in Ammonite might even be a little better.
    I truly loved this. The sex scenes were amazing compared to what is usually depicted on screen as “lesbian sex”. They were so realistic.

    I think the main thing is that this film was going for “realistic”. When you first meet someone, you’re not going to jump their bones and be all kissy kissy, especially not in that time period. I like how they built it up, and showed us how something like that could have blossomed into what it became.
    It’s a slower paced film maybe, but it kept me intrigued and brought all sorts of emotions out of me, every minute. I never got bored, but I think that also highly depends on how well you connect with the characters.
    The film gave me nolstalgia thinking about one of my ex girlfriends. It truly was a masterpiece IMO

  8. “Look if you want to see Lady Bird sit on Rose’s face, the film will technically give that to you.” lmaoooo i agree vehemently with this review after watching, saoirse glowed but the whole thing was just too drab to salvage.

    i really tried to block out my yet-another-lesbian-period-piece skepticism, but couldn’t help but feel comically frustrated that lesbians are so weirdly often shoehorned into depictions as grumpy white puritans in 4-inch thick clothing who can’t fuck or their husbands will kill them. (and who can’t even have a good beach make-out without one of them popping a WHOLE HARD BOILED EGG down the gullet first)

  9. Seeing the mixed and somewhat harsh critique/reviews of this film was making me feel alone in how I felt on it – glad I read comments to find a mix.

    A few insights on why I loved this film:
    Being that I have always loved Kate Winslet, it felt remarkable that she was telling the tale of being older/rougher/and less of a diamond to the eye. It felt like touching on stories that are often not told on screen, less attractive or even outwardly unhappy looking love that is still intense and life changing.

    I loved the intermingling of old love lost with new love budding. It’s messy and hard to talk about – and maybe Kate Winslet’s character had gone from being the young attractive darling to finding herself attracted to one. There seemed to be unspoken full circle realizations that Winslet gave subtlety to in simply beating experiences she did not want to be having.

    I loved the quiet intermixed throughout the story telling. I think this is what most people did not like, but life itself can be relatively quietly. Or at least for some, and it’s refreshing to see it depicted that way.

    I loved the open ending. One character blundering with how much she loved – so much so that she accidentally gifted a cage. The other finally free from her cage, running from what looked like a new one. Meeting in the middle at the central focus in the museum – can they meet in the middle? I love the possibility there.

    I understand and can agree with much of the criticism, but was also equally glad to see praise that seemed to see what I saw – A movie about being able to find a path to happiness if let yourself dig for it. Yeah, had to pun, I regret nothing.

  10. I was so moved by this film. I don’t understand the brutal review at all. Its unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Kate Winslet is incredible. I love seeing her older, showing us portrayals of women rarely seen. Her quietness is profoundly beautiful.

    It is set nearly 200 years ago so you’ve got to keep in mind its an era of constraint. But its about really big themes- poverty,class, miscarriage (8 sheep figurines representing 8 lost babies), patriarchy, men’s theft of women’s intellectual property, and age differences between lovers.

    Francis Lee, as a gay man, frees us from the male gaze, and has made a really stunning film.

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