Francis Lee’s film Ammonite derives its name from one of the most diverse animals on Earth, which became extinct 66 million years ago. The film is loosely based on the life of Mary Anning, a paleontologist who collected fossils of ammonites and other sea life. The film that uses their name, unfortunately, cannot translate their brilliance and the brilliance of Anning’s life onto the big screen.
On paper, Ammonite appears to be a ready-made, Oscar-worthy film. It boasts a phenomenal cast including Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, and a director who had an exceptional debut with God’s Own Country. Like Ammonite, the debut film follows a queer love story with a sombre tone and an intense fixation on reality. It received widespread acclaim, with an approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes of 98%.
Unfortunately, Lee’s second feature film does not live up to his first. The characters are emotionless and distant, the plot dull and painful. The pace is slow throughout the whole film, except for two intense sex scenes, which are the only lively parts of this cold, limp film.
Before it even reached the cinema, Lee’s second film felt the weight of high expectations, as it is a rare occurrence for a feature film to focus its story on two women falling in love. I praise Francis Lee for giving us another homosexual love story in the sea of repetitive heteronormative rom-com. Unfortunately, I think Ammonite will disappoint viewers hoping for a new queer film to gush over. Inevitably, there has been some backlash, which is in part due to the fact that there is no evidence that Mary Anning was actually a lesbian. Lee has responded to this by saying that, “After seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout the culture, and given a historical figure where there is no evidence whatsoever of a heterosexual relationship, is it not permissible to view that person within another context?”
Apart from its possible historical inaccuracy, it is shocking to watch a film that is so sombre in tone but at the same time so unemotional. The characters are stuck in misery, but not one that made me feel something for them. Instead, it was a gloom that made me feel just as miserable as they did. Not once did I feel a pull at my heartstrings or an urge to cry. It is normal for period dramas to be lacking in cheer, but Ammonite well and truly doubles down by using extremely dark lighting and washed-out colouring.
If you are looking for a reason to watch this film, look towards Lee’s attention to detail as one of the shining lights. It is clear to see that the costume and set choices are carefully designed to create a particular ambience. Anning’s robust yet plain outfits and Charlotte’s decadent dresses illustrate the differences between them perfectly.
For a film about someone who led such an interesting life, it really does make Anning seem so dull. It was not until after I watched the film and did research on the woman that I was astonished by the life she led. Anning’s work radically changed scientific thought at the time, and some even called her the world’s best fossilist. Like many other women throughout history, Anning did not receive credit for her valuable contributions to the world of science.
While just one film cannot convey all of this in 120 minutes, it should have done better. It is a shame that Lee decided to portray Anning as an ordinary woman, without providing context for her amazing accomplishments. With its Australian premiere in the midst of summer, I would encourage anyone looking for an afternoon out of the heat to avoid this cold fossil of a film.