Stop Giving ‘Ammonite’ a Bad Rap

Ammonite Mary Anning
The face of a million lesbians

What lucky queers we are to have so many movies to compare and contrast this year. From the spirited debates between #TeamHarper and #TeamRiley over the film The Happiest Season to the secondary gay couple in that other holiday movie, plus still talking about David Rose wedding.

Let me stick up for an underdog, the Francis Lee helmed period piece Ammonite.

The obvious comparison is the lush Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

How great to have two period pieces reminding us that not all lesbian histories are alike. Nor are all lesbian relationships. France 1770 is not 1840 Southern England.

I enjoyed Portrait, but it felt remotely beautiful and inaccessible. The first few scenes reminded me of The Piano. It was likely a masterpiece about the forbidden love between two gorgeous young women.

Ammonite’s Mary Anning, on the other hand, is gritty, worn-out, and achingly familiar. Her life has been hard on its face, compounded by her secret.

Whatever sexual awakening she experienced was long before the cameras came. Twisted into the harsh struggle for survival and the sexism robbing her of her due credit in her work was this other piece that she had to navigate alone.

Mary’s painful experiences were not exceptional. She is not Gentleman Jack, nor the artiste Marianne. She does backbreaking labor to support herself and her mother, fully aware of her potential as a scientist denied because of her gender. Charlotte does not come into her life as a peer, but as a classic example of the Society that viewed Mary as a worker bee. There’s a scene late in the film (not that one) where Charlotte illustrates her intent to make Mary an exception to her view of working class women – Mary’s exceptionalism because of her scientific brilliance – rather than open her own mind to how society’s constraints hold all of the Mary’s of the time down.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is probably a better film technically, a more artistic glimpse into the interior lives of millions of women living repressed European lives. I enjoyed it quite a bit and would watch again.

But Ammonite connected with me as a 50 year old woman on a different level. I look at my partner and I as we face the challenges of aging, the rough parts of life such as hauling heavy loads, the lines in our hands and faces telling our stories. We both toil with little acknowledgement where men would be better compensated. We met when I was 33 and she was 40, old enough to feel battered and beaten down and perhaps a little hopeless.

As I watched Kate Winslet transform into this magnificent character, I kept hearing “Just keep moving forward” as she plodded to the sea and home again, struggled up walls, engaged old lovers to help her mother, and even put herself into an uncomfortable social situation causing seeming agony to make someone else happy. She knew she deserved better, she did not internalize the stigma on her mind. But she didn’t pretend to like it or smile about it.

Not every movie has to be everything to everyone. There are lots of older lesbians who still desire passionate sexual encounters and also companionship, along with recognition for their accomplishments. They – we – do not inherently want to be our 20something selves again even with lush surroundings and the best lighting. We want stories that look like us, not just whom we wished to be.

Ammonite stands fine on its own merits. It doesn’t have to be the #TeamHarper in this much abused metaphor. I hope we continue to move forward with solid cimematic tales that reflect the myriad of identities and experiences in our lives.

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