The PettyCoat Chronicles ‘Ammonite’ Isn’t a Lesbian Romance, But It Is About Intimacy
This movie is not a romance. I’ve watched it over and over again, wanting it to be, but I don’t think it is one—at least in a conventional sense.
Absurd, how often what we need to say the most is the very thing we positively cannot say—not without risk, not without the inevitability of great pain to our former or imagined selves. Even more absurd: My use of we here is yet another feint against being perceived. A paradox at best, hypocrisy at worst, to make a bid for understanding, even while I chafe at the gesture. “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found,” D. W. Winnicott wrote.
I watched Ammonite for the first time about a year ago in the dead of the Wisconsin winter, when it was below zero most days and already pitch-black outside by 4:00 p.m. It was a painful time: I’d come out more publicly to my family as queer only a couple of months prior, all in the midst of powering through a detructive and inevitable breakup. The dark well of loneliness that only a Midwestern December can bring had taken on a new depth and stillness. I burrowed into whatever on-screen distraction I could find.
In August 2019, my new doctor formally diagnosed me with major depressive disorder, i.e. clinical depression. I’d been living untreated with the worst of my symptoms for well over four years at that point. I remember (not in any literal way, but by hazy impression) the many mornings and afternoons between teaching classes or going to meetings where I would crawl into bed, unable to get up or start my day because I physically did not have the strength to do it. I convinced myself that this was normal, that I was “normal.”
So when the diagnosis came at last, it felt like a long-awaited benediction. As though this physician—herself a woman, too—were saying, Go! Be sick in silence no more . Finally, my haint had been given a name and could be rendered powerless. Just a hormone imbalance; I and a pill could manage that.
Without that name, though, I was pretty much adrift, unsure of where and what my body was.
It’s indulgent, but I’m delighted by the noticeable influx of lesbian period dramas, or “sapphic stories by the sea,” as my friends and I like to call them. In just the past few years, several have garnered critical and commercial success: Portrait of a Lady On Fire , The Favourite , Carol , just to name a few. I’m always moved by their beauty, even when the films themselves are deeply flawed in some way or another. I welcome it, this heady cocktail of my favorite artistic elements: women, fashion, and the past.
Though I don’t know why this trend in Hollywood exists right now, or what its objectives are, I imagine it may have to do with the idea of there still being something inherently transgressive in the public imagination about openly depicting lesbians at all, let alone women-loving women from long ago. The trend has the commercial appeal of a sideshow attraction in some ways, as if saying, Oh look, here are two women gazing at each other. Here are two women kissing. Here are two women kissing in the dark, because there’s no electricity yet and because their husbands are one argument away from sending them to an asylum before they go off to war and die.
I’ve lost count of how many times now I’ve watched Kate Winslet hike up her wool skirts and climb the rocky walls of Lyme Regis, England, digging through mud and fossilized shit. She struggles, her face telegraphing a weathered ennui bordering on resentment. The waves behind her froth on the beach, relentless against the dull gray of morning. She picks away at the stone and wet sand with her bare hands, intent on prying a large rock out of a crevice, until she loses her balance and slips, the rock tumbling beyond her reach and smashing open on the crags below. She picks herself up and carries the pieces of the broken fossil home, back where she lives with her sick and elderly mother. She does all this in complete silence.
So begins Ammonite , Francis Lee’s 2020 cinematic interpretation of the nineteenth-century paleontologist Mary Anning. An avid collector of fossils throughout her life, Anning and her findings, research, and discoveries made a significant contribution to modern understandings of extinction and prehistoric life on earth. The historical Mary Anning remains somewhat of an enigma, however, notably due to the particular brand of institutional sexism in her day.
Though she briefly reached levels of international fame for her numerous discoveries of Jurassic fossils around the beaches of Dorset, the wealthy men that governed the Geological Society of London routinely excluded Anning from the scientific community. Many of her findings remained uncredited to her during her lifetime, and what widespread recognition she did receive has occurred well after her death.
Ammonite ’s focus, however, is not on a suppressed career, or yet another white woman’s struggle to be accepted in a white man’s world. The film’s attention pivots to an interior life, portraying a torrid and fraught sexual relationship between Mary Anning, played by Kate Winslet, and Charlotte Murchison, played by Saoirse Ronan. Charlotte, the frail, sickly wife of an amateur paleontologist who passes through Lyme, encounters Mary at an inopportune time in both their individual lives. Eventually, this becomes the strongest reason for the passionate nature of their brief intimacy.
After I first watched Ammonite , I wasn’t sure if I liked it. Mary is hard and a little mean (which I liked); Charlotte is mousey, repressed, and deeply angry (which I also liked). But I didn’t like where the film took me, let alone how it ended. I remember criticizing it pretty harshly at first, despite the strength of the cast and the sheer beauty of the cinematography. I felt the ending in particular to be half-baked and a little enamored with itself. A small spoiler here: The final act hurtles forward abruptly, and the final scene, involving Mary and Charlotte gazing at each other through the glass panes of a literal gilded cage, stands out in my recollection as one of the more heavy-handed final sequences I’ve seen recently in film.
I’m delighted by the noticeable influx of lesbian period dramas, or “sapphic stories by the sea.”
But the following day, I watched this movie again. And again a few weeks later. And again. Each time with a kind of aching hunger for something akin to comfort—a consolation that could be as mindless as it was palpable. What was it about this film that kept drawing me back? Over and over, through that miserable winter?
There’s a scene in Ammonite that snags in my memory more than any other singular moment. Charlotte, an acute melancholic recovering from a miscarriage, has been ordered by her husband’s doctor to “go to the sea and bathe.” To her husband, frail and sickly Charlotte has transformed into someone utterly unrecognizable. “I want my funny, clever wife back,” he tells her in exasperation before thrusting her into Mary’s care, then leaving the two alone for several weeks.
In the scene I’m thinking of, Charlotte is in the process of obeying the doctor’s orders. We see her bracing herself in a makeshift wooden shed at the edge of the shore, presumably designed for her to change into her thickly layered swimming frock. The water rushes in under her feet with such violent force, it’s remarkable she’s able to leave the shed at all. As she steps out into the sea, she’s nearly swallowed by wave after wave. It’s a perverse baptism that looks much more like drowning, her small frame little more than driftwood.
Through the weeks following my breakup and overlapping coming-out, I found ironic relief in my solitude, in my grief. That relief came at an exacting price. I could finally hear myself think, but the voices of failure, loneliness, and misplaced shame persisted as the loudest voices, the most seductive and familiar. You are a disappointment. You may not be wrong by being who you really are, but who you are is a disappointment.
It’s taken me the better part of a year to write about this movie. I’d like to say I don’t know why it’s taken so long, but of course I do. Ingrained neural pathways are powerful. It frightens me still—writing frankly about the simultaneous intimacy and publicness of my queerness frightens me, just as much as my phobia of drowning in the ocean or floating off into deep space and suffocating alone. It is a joy to be hidden.
Most days, I think of myself as a Mary: hard, threatening without meaning to be, angry at the utter uselessness of the world, powering through a life that looks nothing like what she imagined it would be. Content but lonely, without thinking about it too much. Like Mary, I prize my meticulousness in the craft of my profession, my ability to scrape and polish relics into something to admire, something sold at a price unjustly far below its worth. Like Mary, being disturbed in my solitude without my permission is among the greatest of personal violations—the very real possibility of finding relief in love, or physical pleasure, or tender companionship is rarely enough to jolt me into romantic action. Not without deep uneasiness. It is a disaster not to be found .
But I know that, for much of my life, I’ve been a Charlotte—a melancholic cursed with a bent toward optimism, a woman always wanting more, determined to be well, even if it kills her. Lonely, and acquainted with loneliness so deeply that it compels her to grasp for beauty that’s more or less absurd to want. And a woman who, in romance, for much of her adult life, has made the foolish but common mistake of conflating who she imagines a beloved to be with the reality of who they are.
So it was a little jarring, if not darkly funny, to see these two women fucking on-screen, each trying desperately not to fall apart each time they’re faced with each other. “I don’t want to go back to the life I had before you,” Charlotte tells Mary.
The twist here is that very little of what we see in Ammonite is rooted in any historical fact whatsoever, a choice that Francis Lee has defended in the face of criticism . The historical Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison did know each other and corresponded as friends, but there is nothing in their communications that indicates anything romantic, let alone sexual. So why the elaborate fan fiction? Lee tweeted in a thread: “ 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…?”
I think this is a fair question, but it’s ultimately one I don’t find personally useful in my own writing, or as a consumer. It’s true that queer historical figures (who didn’t have our contemporary language to describe themselves as such, but behaved or understood themselves as being outside of heterosexuality) have been flattened into straightness, both in historical memory and in film adaptations. But given that lesbianism in period films is a bit of a hot trend, as I named before, I do think the critique around this degree of complete fabrication is warranted.
Still, to me, Ammonite as a film simply is what it is—an imagining of a historical figure about whom we know very little beyond the surface, a woman whose actual interior life remains sealed off and private. Perhaps all of this is a cosmic mercy in a way. Though Mary Anning’s public life as an archaeologist was mangled into obscurity during her lifetime, we do know the significance of her work and research now. Her name is remembered; her scholarship is valued.
But that essence, the spark of who she actually was to her family, her friends, to any lovers she might have had, remains hidden and unknowable to even the most curious among us now. Even Charlotte Murchison is transformed into a fiction bearing little resemblance to what we know historically. I think of Winnicott: Whoever “found” the real Mary in her intimate life remains a mystery, though I can hardly call this a disaster, given how exploited she was already while living.
Winter passes; it returns. It will pass again. I think of the first time I let a woman touch me after that breakup. I thought I’d come apart at the seams—and in a way I did. I’m grateful for the unraveling, to have been done in by gentleness for a change. It was beautiful; it was frightening. It lasted only weeks before she ended things, her reasons disappointing and human. You’re leaving soon. I’m sorry. But what I found in the wake of disappointment wasn’t my drowning in the ocean, or my suffocating in deep space. It was grounded, full of earth.
What I found in the wake of disappointment wasn’t my drowning in the ocean, or my suffocating in deep space. It was grounded, full of earth.
I returned to Charlotte, depressed and stepping out of that shed, trying desperately to find her footing against unrelenting nature. I returned to Mary, falling off the side of that rock wall with her shit-covered fossil, finding it smashed open beside her. Just as in ecstasy, I fell into my own body—and what a terror that was! My iron, my hurt, my strength. My big, mute, heart.
For those who haven’t seen the film, I must warn you: Ammonite is not a romance. I’ve watched it over and over again, wanting it to be, but I don’t think it is one, in any conventional sense. Yes, it’s a story about digging for intimacy—about loneliness, depression, erotic frustration, and good old-fashioned sex—but I’d hardly call it romantic. There’s no quest, no hero’s journey, really, no passionate self-sacrifice. There’s not even much pining, given these women are right under each other’s noses the entire time.
There isn’t space, really, for yearning—but is there not something electric, even sacred, about the kind of simple proximity we get here between Mary and Charlotte? To just be present in real time with another human being, for however long, to simply behold them, even and especially when they are unknowable to you. It’s in trying to change that person, to bend them to your will and idea of who they are, that the electricity short-circuits.
This gesture toward depicting two women’s wholly separate but parallel searches for intimacy may be the most successful thing about Ammonite as a film. At least, in my estimation. What Mary and Charlotte make, and discover together, is a brief and shifting sanctuary quite literally built upon the sand—but a real and vital sanctuary nonetheless. The nature and duration of their relationship is far less important than the fact of it, the absurdity of being shocked out of their solipsism and into each other’s arms for a brief but powerful season. In each other, these two women find an opportunity to return to themselves at a moment in their lives where such a return, and the sweetness of it, seemed impossible. And yet.