The Myrna Loy
First things first: Saoirse rhymes with inertia.
Wanna take a guess at Cliodhna Ni Cheileachair? She’s an Irish friend of mine.
“Ammonite” stars Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet in a two-hour duet.
There were times when I found myself thinking of the Flower Duet. That’s where two women sing as they go to pick flowers and bathe in the river in Leo Delibes' French opera “Lakme.” Story doesn’t quite fit, but film’s acting is operatic at times.
Both actresses, among the best in their craft, take us on an interior 19th century journey. A reclusive British paleontologist Mary Anning (Winslet) and, a fragile young married woman, Charlotte (Ronan), become unlikely friends and, eventually, lovers.
I’m not sure either woman smiles for the first hour. Mary is a sour, prickly woman who searches the beach looking for rare rocks. Mary mirrors the ammonite, a “sea slug with a soft seashell encased in a hard shell”
Charlotte, a geologist, is depressed and sullen, recovering from some hidden tragedy.
Charlotte’s gem of husband, also a geologist, has taken her to the Lyme Regis West Dorset, on the Southern coast of England and leaves her there to get well.
The husband, who admires Mary Anning’s paleontological work, asks Anning to “look after Charlotte.” He suggests she let Charlotte tag along on the beach.
No, Charlotte is not asked for input.
All that is unconvincing riff raff to set up a relationship journey between Mary and Charlotte.
Both women are guarded, reluctant to take emotional risks or to disclose.
The thaw takes place gradually, in small moments – a hand on shoulder, a glance while sitting on rocks on the beach.
Slowly these kindred lonely souls begin to trust – Mary, perhaps for the first time. Charlotte begins to emerge from depression.
There’s no way to review “Ammonite” without talking about sex. So, let’s.
After a quiet, subtle build up with very little dialogue and lots of walks on the beach looking for fossils, the two ladies explode into intimate, explicit sex. Two scenes, taking turns.
One online review said the film was “Rated R for smoldering sex and frigid beaches.”
It’s fair to say that moviegoers who are looking for Winslet’s “Sense and Sensibility” or Ronan’s “Brooklyn” might fidget a bit. Blush-prone cinephiles best stay home.
Such moments always raise the question of authenticity versus exploitation, or perhaps eroticism versus pornography. Does the explicitness deepen the story or is it gratuitous?
I’ve seen both types of film – ones that are wonderful precisely because of their sexual honesty and ones that seem exploitive as they slip into salacious male-gaze mode.
I thought back to a conversation with a friend of mine, a gay film critic. As films tiptoed into depicting gay love in the 1980s, he said he welcomed the progress but regretted the caution. The love was coded and sanitized so as not to offend a straight audience. Straight sex had no such restrictions or limitations.
Remembering that, I saw “Ammonite” as both surprisingly explicit and also honest.
Both stars and the director have been interviewed at length about those scenes. Director Francis Lee seems a bit exasperated by the excess amount of press given to same-sex love scenes compared to straight sex scenes. Such scenes are still seen as newsworthy even though society is more accepting of LGBTQ+ than ever.
Winslet and Ronan say they choreographed the scenes themselves. Winslet said she chose Ronan’s birthday to film them because “I just wanted her to have, frankly, a great memory in her film life.”
I also regret the media’s obsession with those scenes, because the deeper elements of the relationship – fear, trust – are being overshadowed.
Also downplayed is a theme about male scientists taking credit for the work of female paleontologists. The film opens with a man covering up Anning’s name in a display of her work.
A tender story of Anning’s caring for her aging mom deserves praise, too.
The wordless ending is simply brilliant.
It’s worth noting that the characters are based on well-known historical characters who were respected paleontologists. The love affair has no evidence in history, however. But Lee has said he wanted a story worthy of Mary Anning – and of Winslet and Ronan.
So why not lesbian love? Sure, why not.
In closing, I must praise the beaches along the Jurassic coast of England. I was raised on coastline, and walks along such rocky beaches are spiritual to me.
Truth be known, I was more enchanted by cold winds blowing across the coast of England than by the hot sex.
Quiz answer: klee-ah-na. Last name? No clue.