No matter the culture, no matter the century, one of the great obstacles facing LGBT people through time has been the virtual invisibility of those who have come before. If you don’t see anyone like you in a seemingly heterogeneous — and heteronormative — society, it’s hard to feel anything other than deviant, out of step and alone. When critics say, “Representation matters,” this is why: Art — but also artifacts, including diaries, portraiture and possessions that belonged to real people — creates a kind of fossil record of those who preceded you, offering evidence that others have faced the same questions.
Named for that species of spiral-shaped mollusk its heroine finds petrified along England’s southern shores, dreary yet daring “Ammonite” has this metaphor very much in mind. Set on the overcast coast of Lyme Regis, circa 1840, the film centers on a real person, amateur paleontologist Mary Anning — played by a remarkably committed, totally unselfconscious Kate Winslet — who spent her days collecting and cleaning such fossils for tourists. Little is known about this woman, whose expertise was largely self-taught, and into this void steps filmmaker Francis Lee, imagining a life that turns Mary into a hardy proto-feminist pioneer.
In Lee’s eyes, Mary may have suffered from the lack of lesbian role models, but in his hands, she emerges as the sort of figure that she herself might have needed in order to more fully embrace her sexuality. That there’s little evidence to suggest the real Mary Anning was queer or repressed doesn’t discourage the actor-turned-auteur in the slightest. The actual woman is but a shell onto which he can project whatever life he pleases, and what he pleases is to believe that such a person may have found the strength to love another woman — embodied here by an unusually fragile Saoirse Ronan — at a time when such relationships were all but forbidden.
What Lee couldn’t have known when he undertook “Ammonite” was how the life he had chosen for Mary would pale in comparison with last year’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire,” a richer and considerably more articulate film extrapolated from a remarkably similar analogy — one where paint, rather than petrification, preserved a love story that might otherwise have gone unrecorded. Still, many audiences missed “Portrait” (a French film now available via The Criterion Collection), and there’s enough that’s unique about “Ammonite” to recommend it all the same.
There are the performances, for starters: Winslet seems to have swallowed a black hole’s worth of oppression and unhappiness as Mary, a staunch ascetic whose dour character has been calcified by self-reliance, while Ronan embodies the pale flower entrusted to her care, and in whose company Mary’s frosty exterior begins to thaw. To be more specific, Mary lives — with her fussy mother (Gemma Jones), crushed by past loss — and works in a dingy seaside shop, from which she sells the ammonite fossils she collects along the beach (that much is factual).
To the untrained eye, the stones Mary identifies might look like nothing more than useless rubble, belched up by the sea, but she has been doing this long enough to recognize which of these rocks contain splendid prehistoric specimens, hidden deep inside. If that sounds like another metaphor, rest assured, it can’t be accidental, although the movie never follows through on the notion of Mary being split open.
The one to do it would be Charlotte (Ronan), the wan-looking wife of a gentleman named Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), a relatively well-to-do member of the Royal Geographical Society, who has somewhat condescendingly sought out Mary to teach him how to identify ammonites. He offers to pay her, first for a lesson and later to serve as a guardian for his ailing spouse. Charlotte suffers from some kind of “mild melancholia” — although it can’t help that her patronizing yet oblivious husband, who’s cold in bed, dismisses her concerns with comments like “Don’t make a fuss.”
Roderick leaves, and Charlotte mopes for a time, while Lee attempts what came so much easier in his previous film: He sows the seeds of desire in soil so coarse as to seem infertile. Mind you, “Ammonite” is just Lee’s second feature, following rustic coming-out story “God’s Own Country,” which was noteworthy for its rugged, unflinching authenticity. In that film’s opening minutes, a young farmer buries his arm deep into a cow’s derriere, a jarring sight that effectively inoculates audiences to the assortment of bodily fluids that follow: spit, spunk, sh–, piss and blood.
However gratuitous it might sound, that startling array of effluvia serves to make the subsequent action — especially the gnarly gay sex — feel just as natural as everything else that goes down on a farm. Lee is nothing if not consistent here. If you like your queer romances grim, graphic and miserable, then he’s your man. In “Ammonite,” Lee opens Mary and Charlotte’s first trip to the shore with a close-up of urine splattering on the rocks, which is hardly seductive — at this point, the two women appear wary of (if not outright indifferent to) one another — but establishes a coarse kind of intimacy between them.
Charlotte could hardly seem less interested in the rock collecting, and Mary makes little effort to engage her, suggesting that the younger woman go for a swim instead. Charlotte tries as much but catches ill, giving Mary reason to visit her old friend Elizabeth (Fiona Shaw) for a jar of salve and several oblique hints at an unspoken past. Were Mary and Elizabeth once lovers? If so, why didn’t it last?
Under Mary’s healing caresses, Charlotte quickly rebounds, and after a recital hosted by the local doctor (Alec Secareanu of “God’s Own Country”) at which a complicated web of micro-jealousies is meant to be woven, the two women find themselves unable to deny their attraction any longer. A tentative good-night kiss opens the door to a fervor neither Charlotte nor the audience is quite prepared for — although the scene is modeled almost exactly after one in Jane Campion’s “The Piano,” whose forlorn pre-adulterous tone “Ammonite” mimics, while somehow missing the supersonic explosion of extramarital passion that follows. (Maybe it’s the lack of an enthusiastic score. Music barely features in Lee’s somber film.) Their lovemaking is certainly acrobatic enough.
Tonally, “Ammonite” feels oppressively stark, reinforced by a visual palette that’s practically monochromatic: pasty women in black bonnets and frocks, set against gray cliffs and dusty interiors. Winslet’s makeup, designed to look like no makeup at all, tends to make her look haggard, whereas a youthful, hopeful blush appears in Ronan’s cheeks that conveys an optimism on her part that their relationship might continue.
Lee has taken a rather bold step in reimagining Mary Anning as a lesbian, but he doesn’t dare make her emotional fulfillment an easy fantasy to achieve, and the final scenes of the movie will likely divide those who haven’t already checked out on this unusually demanding drama. “Ammonite” is linear but low-key, relying on audiences’ ability to appreciate the subtle, subtextual cues Winslet and Ronan transmit via body language, especially as propriety holds their tongue. Ultimately more symbolic than satisfying, the project leaves one grateful that two stars of this caliber would take on such a story, while wishing their efforts had left us with a more resonant artifact.