When Francis Lee’s Ammonite opened across the world’s most prominent film festivals, it immediately attracted media attention. Interestingly however, it wasn’t because Lee’s film looks as though it was designed to cash in on the clout generated by last year’s critical darling, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait Of A Lady On Fire, but rather due to the liberties the filmmaker took while writing the script.
For those who might not know, Ammonite functions as a distal cousin to what we could vaguely define as a biopic in that it tells the story of one Mary Anning (1799-1847), a British-born paleontologist who devoted her life to the arduous task of excavating and describing prehistoric fossils. Granted, little is known about Anning’s personal life as she lived mostly in solitude. This is probably why her biography might invite an imaginative storyteller to ‘fill in the blanks’ and use her character as an anchor to the period setting and a springboard to embark on a dramatic journey the filmmaker desires to tell. This is exactly what Francis Lee did in the end: he applied dramatic licence as he saw fit in order to craft a compelling narrative. Hence, he used Anning’s persona to craft an intimate gay romance story he felt personally invested in.
Whether he succeeded in his quest is not the point of this article, however. As a matter of fact, I spent a number of paragraphs opining on it in my review, which you can read in full on CLAPPER. And for what it’s worth, there is absolutely nothing wrong with the idea of using dramatic licence as a tool in the course of an artistic pursuit. Nevertheless, just as there is no such thing as a free lunch, any manipulation of the historical record for the purposes of sprucing up the narrative comes with associated trade-offs. What is more, it should be noted that Lee himself shared in a series of tweets responding to a variety of critical opinion pieces, which sprouted in the blogosphere like champignons after a drizzly night, that he felt it was appropriate to do so “after seeing queer history be routinely ‘straightened’ throughout culture” (read the article in full on BBC News).
This statement adds a tinge of nuance to the whole situation. Lee is most certainly correct in stating that gay historical figures have had their sexual orientation either swept under the rug or straightened completely, so as to appeal to the more conservative audiences. But playing a game of tit-for-tat isn’t necessarily the way to address this issue. What is needed is a straightforward and inclusive approach involving depicting characters truthfully, regardless of their race, sexual identity, etc. Hence, the filmmaker’s approach seemed to have been underpinned, at least partially, by a political agenda.
What Francis Lee most likely did not take into account while filling the blanks in Mary Anning’s biography with suppressed homosexuality was other bits of nuance that could equally inform her character and explain why she led such a withdrawn and secretive life. Although she is now seen as one of the pioneers in the field of paleontology whose work helped immensely in increasing our understanding of prehistoric life, Anning was not formally educated; because she couldn’t. It has to be remembered that the first English college to open its doors to women (Bedford College) did so in 1849, two years after Anning’s death. She was effectively an intruder encroaching onto a field occupied exclusively by men. To make matters worse, she was continually mistreated, stripped of credit and patronized by other scientists working in this field, only because she was born into poverty and she lacked education that she was formally not allowed to attain. For the record, Francis Lee does address this theme in the film, albeit briefly.
The question now arises: is this not enough to give Mary Anning’s character agency? In fact, this is almost exactly how Barbara Anning, one of her descendants, addressed these factual inaccuracies. As portrayed by Kate Winslet, Anning is persistently angry. She drowns herself in her work, doesn’t speak much and has a distaste of men, which she does not really hide. And could you really blame her? Nobody had the courtesy to show her even a modicum of professional courtesy, let alone respect, and acknowledge her contributions to the field. All she ever received were sneers and jeers. And let’s be completely honest here: this wasn’t just a product of its time. No! Ask any female scientist working today about their experiences building a career (and a good example will be seeing Professor Frances Arnold, a Nobel laureate in chemistry, give a lecture), especially in an academic environment, and you will immediately recognize that although a lot has changed, science continues to be a boys’ club.
The story of Mary Anning could have been the perfect vehicle to reignite this urgent discussion about the position of women in science, their historical trials and tribulations and much more. People need to hear about Anning, Marie Sklodowska-Curie, Dorothy Hodgkin (whose contributions to discovering the structure of DNA were disgracefully omitted by the Nobel committee) or Rosalind Franklin, because they managed to turn the tides of scientific progress while working in an utterly hostile environment, overcoming prejudice and making immense personal sacrifices for the greater good of mankind. They should be remembered as heroines that they are!
But this is something Francis Lee clearly didn’t care enough about while crafting his steamy romance. Audacious and progressive as it is in its own right, Ammonite does a massive disservice both to Mary Anning’s scientific legacy and the continual historic strife of women of science. He re-contextualizes Anning’s frustration and supposes that it may have stemmed not from being overlooked and patronized professionally, but because she was not allowed to love who she wanted to love. What is more, he also applies the same mechanic to the character of Charlotte Murchison played by Saoirse Ronan, who was also a geologist in real life. This isn’t touched upon in the film at all. In fact, she is portrayed as a bored and depressed housewife directed by her husband to spend time with Anning and ‘get a hobby’.
Naturally, as the film progresses and a flaming romance erupts between the two women, one could easily overlook an undercurrent of condescension permeating the film throughout. But it’s nonetheless there and it somehow flattens both Anning and Murchison’s characters and cheapens the experience of relating to what women of the time had to grapple with. He turns both of them into avatars for their repressed sexual identities and relegates everything else about their lives (ironically these are things for which there is ample historical evidence) to the background. Through Lee’s lens, both Anning and Murchison are slaves to their sexuality who live unhappy lives because they can’t express themselves sexually, not because they were persistently treated as intellectually inferior to men. And something tells me that a female filmmaker would not have made that sacrifice.