Written by Jasmine Waters
For those that celebrate Pride month or are discovering an identity that exists outside of the heteronormative framework, queer representation in visual media is often the first port of call. As a result, the lack of realism and range within the sapphic cinematic canon is something we’re overly familiar with – often easily separated and packaged into narrative tropes that subconsciously define our existence to those in wider social settings.
2020 birthed the British period drama Ammonite, starring a leading duo (Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan) many lesbians have hoped might forage into the realms of WLW (women loving women) drama. Despite holding promise as a successor to the French Portrait of a Lady on Fire, the film was met with less than glowing critiques, often cited as boring or lacking in driving plot. It only takes a quick TikTok search to see Ammonite labelled as a film ‘too high brow to be anyone’s favourite’. While the hands of common queer cinematic tropes look to keep their grip on the constraints of film itself, Ammonite arguably presents a delicately nuanced take within its confines that teeters on perfection.
It is almost not a surprise that the overwhelming reaction has left a sour note in the queer binging palette. We’re often completely starved of the kinds of queer films we actively look for as the storylines are built to fit a narrative arc that does not serve who it represents. Looking back at the last few decades, lesbians are given a taste of everything from the solemn to the absurd to the downright disrespectful. Disobedience ends with man and society keeping sapphic love apart, Blue is the Warmest Colour is hideous in its creative process while Loving Annabelle romanticises sexual relations with a minor. Even sacred rites of passage like The L Word have aged as badly as Sex and The City, with its binary storylines completely unforgiving. It is safe to say that our bar of expectation is at an all-time low. So much so, we may even miss the subtleties of slow-burning beauty when we see them. This has arguably been the case in Ammonite’s reception, the focus on building intense connection within the framework of what we love to hate being misinterpreted and overlooked.
There’s a pleasantly organic nature to Ammonite’s creation. Centring a fictitious portrayal of palaeontologist Mary Anning, Winslet melds the hard-faced nature of a woman shunned by society into a sense of sapphic realism that blurs the lines of cinema and reality. A similar sense of respect extends to the film’s writing and direction, with Francis Lee behind the quietly volatile God’s Own Country, its stylistic interpretation present in Ammonite to great effect. Every narrative detail has been scrutinised in the leading three’s development, extending to Winslet and Ronan choreographing that sex scene themselves. This is a film with a no-holds barred attitude, which is what queer representation arguably needs. Its bravery, defiance and validity appear in the smallest details, carefully dancing within the framework of a straight man’s world.
Perhaps it is a case of the cinematic ‘slow-build’ not appealing to the generation that has everything on demand. Blossoming romance is nurtured through stolen looks, soft touches and unrequited connection, everything a Jane Austen novel is founded on. Adding the queer lens to this creates a currency that continually resonates in what is trying to be, but can’t. These sequences play out from start to finish – the curiosity that overtakes fossil hunting, the stilted ambience of an out-of-place violin symphony, the eventual intimate embraces in the folds of the ocean waves and linen bed sheets. The sex scene alone is an artistic piece to behold, prioritising the unfiltered female pleasure akin to many queer bedrooms across the world. Its these split-second moments that freeze us in time, absorb us in the trials and tribulations love often brings with it. The action is never explosive, dynamic, or suspenseful. But it does not need to be. It does not question its own feelings, or reason away being exactly where it is. In a time of sensationalist queerbaiting, fetishization and marginalised scapegoating, the antidote of Ammonite’s unabashed subtlety is refreshing.
With the same hand that successfully encompasses minute detail, Ammonite squarely looks into the eye of the tropes that shackle the genre. Queer and lesbian films are typically blighted by period timeframes, age-gaps and forbidden relations forced by a male society – each of which Ammonite has in spadefuls. It is difficult to be irritated by any of these obvious crutches, though. Its take on the 1840s Devonshire coastline feels fresh, remaining a far cry from the Victorian streets of an oversold BBC series while delving into a slice of British Jurassic history we’ve always been enamoured with. The age-gap relationship doesn’t prove itself as a sticking point either, with Winslet and Ronan effortlessly embroiled into the lives of the other. If anything, it is the role of society that can be critiqued. Much like 2015’s Carol, we’re left wondering if the two will be allowed to pursue their passions, in an ending that provides fluctuating levels of satisfaction. Still, the course of the relationship has a finite ending, so no nights are spent awake wondering what could have been if the climax was changed.
There’s no real reason Ammonite can’t hold the same fire, finesse and rugged beauty that hits like Portrait of a Lady on Fire often boast. In fact, its ingenious craft and painstaking detail act as the foundation to nurture what that former can’t – a plot that knows where you are, and a connection that could seamlessly integrate into the modern world. As we wait for cinema to spring back to life by fantasising about which of our MILF crushes might kiss next, putting in the work to re-watch Ammonite allows for its gift to keep on giving.
Featured image courtesy of Unsplash. No changes have been made to this image.