As a fourteen-year-old girl, I was inexplicably compelled to watch The French Lieutenant’s Woman no less than eleven times, rewinding the old VHS tape from the library until it wobbled, and my mom—irritated by my Christmas request for a hooded black cape—forbade me from watching it. I can’t discuss Ammonite without alerting you to this fact. Denied regular access to the forlorn Sarah Woodruff on the sea wall, I bought the sound track and played the scenes in my head, where my obsession could burn underground. Years later, I broke up with a boyfriend I’d coerced into watching the thing when his only commentary was that the love scene was abrupt. He was missing the point, of course, but if you know me at all, then you’ll know I was missing a MUCH BIGGER POINT by thinking that his insensitivity to art was the cause of our relationship’s demise

Ammonite was filmed in the same location as The French Lieutenant's Woman. Sarah Woodruff, shown here on location.

Meryl Streep in The French Lieutenant’s Woman

TFLW was filmed in Lyme Regis in Dorset, features a haunting  soundtrack of sorrowful  violins, fossil hunting, a bleak landscape, a mysterious romantic character given to melancholia, stormy waves breaking over the sea wall; and I loved it enough to use it a a bludgeon for crushing a nice boy’s heart. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say, so keep that in mind if you read on.

I  saw the trailer for Ammonite a few months ago: violins, fossils, a melancholic character, the Lyme Regis sea wall, and—deep breaths…

Kate Winslet & Saoirse Ronan as lovers, in a film by Francis Lee, director of the award winning God’s Own Country.

My head almost exploded. It was as if someone had rummaged around in the rattling junk drawer of my deepest cinematic desires and constructed a movie just for me.

As the date for the film’s release to streaming neared, however, I grew anxious. COVID has rendered 2020 a uniquely bleak year, and with so little to look forward to, I worried I might have put too much on this one film. Also, I am happily married to a woman who enjoys adrenaline, musicals, and films about sports ball underdogs. She fell asleep in the theater during Disobedience. With it being just the two of us tottering around the house for the foreseeable future, I remembered poor Dennis and grew antsy, contrived to watch Ammonite alone.

Ammonite: The Movie

Ammonite, a film by Francis Lee, is loosely based on the life of real-life paleontologist Mary Anning, whose accomplishments—as with so many women of her day—were largely rubbed out and written over by men. Mary (Kate Winslet) is a brusque, no-nonsense recluse who barely scrapes out a living selling fossils to tourists. When forced to care take Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), the sick wife of a visiting scientist, she does not appreciate the nuisance. Charlotte is more than she might seem, however, and for the rest of the film, the two women are largely left alone to develop a connection on their own terms.

The acting is perfection. With only the sparest dialog, Winslet and Ronan’s nuanced performances convey a complexity of emotions that words could only muddle. Their physical intimacy is raw and desperate as shipwreck survivors clinging together on a scrap of floating wreckage and filmed with no concessions to the male gaze.

charlotte and mary in a  scene from ammonite

Ronan & Winslet on the art of things unsaid.

In fact, one of the many things that surprised me about the film was the irrelevance of the male characters in a time of extreme patriarchy. Other than the attentions of a kindly doctor, there is little evidence that they are noticed by men at all. The one passer-by on the beach doesn’t even glance in their direction, and I—as a female viewer—found that profoundly relaxing. Charlotte and Mary are free to determine the course of their relationship—whatever that might be—entirely in the context of their own desires.

Windswept, bleak, rattling with cold, the cinematography is breathtaking. The sound design (almost no music), with its hollow floor boards, the scratching of geology picks, and the pouring of icy water left my hands aching with cold. This spare treatment frees the viewer to focus on moments of exquisite passion, like a sudden splash of red across a large gray canvas.

And can we talk about the symbolism? The eggs, the bugs, the flowers, the use of color (and likely a few others I’d need a third viewing to catch.) I adored it.

But then, as you could tell from the title of this post, I adored everything—absolutely everything—about this film, and will be, from here on out, first in line for anything created by Francis Lee.

Lastly, for those wondering, my person watched the film with me the second time around. She loved it. We’re still married.

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