There is, perhaps, no greater film genre than forbidden love.
The Toronto International Film Festival is the annual hallmark of Oscar season that telegraphs what movies you’ll care about, or at the very least watch win dozens of awards all winter and spring (Green Book premiered there, for context). It makes sense that this year’s COVID-dictated virtual festival centers around that genre.
Emotions are more volatile and more untenable than ever. Also, we’re all trapped. Right now, forbidden love is something to be achingly compassionate about, but also a fantasy.
The feeling of isolation and a certain kind of emotional claustrophobia haunt Ammonite, the big Oscar play that premiered at TIFF on Friday night.
It’s the movie you’ve already heard about, the one with the strange title in which Kate Winslet has a lesbian sex scene and is hanging her Oscar hopes on. (She’s already done two major interviews in which she explains she’s not concerned about awards anymore, while dropping bombshell quote after endearing anecdote that seem acutely calibrated to kick off an award-season run.)
The film is by writer-director Francis Lee, whose most significant previous work is 2017’s God’s Own Country. It’s a movie that deserves thousands of words of praise for how expertly it captures the emotional volatility of sexual, passionate, imperfect, forbidden love—and is also iconic for its explicit and hot-as-hell gay sex scenes.
It is probably not overstepping to say that, yes, the film is gorgeous, devastating, and heartbreaking… but also the fucking. That’s the thing that still sticks with me today. God’s Own Country married sex with longing in the way that we all, because of how it’s talked about, think that Brokeback Mountain did. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that was better at portraying the confused, erotic complications of gay sex, again, in a forbidden place.
So it is with a curious—and, let’s face it, voyeuristic—eye that the attention is turned on Ammonite. (And, let’s face it, its sex scenes.)
In Ammonite, Winslet plays Mary Anning, a pioneering British fossil excavator who lived in the first half of the 1800s.
How much you should think about Anning’s biography while watching is a prickly point. The film’s celebration of her contributions gives credit to a female scientist whose time and circumstances dictated that she would not receive the recognition she deserved. But this is, at its core, a film about a searing relationship between two women, though there is no historical basis for that romance, or even the insinuation that Mary was queer.
Knowing that, in some respects, is what makes Ammonite so interesting.
Here is the telling of a historic figure and instead of making her heterosexual by default, it explores the interplay between her gender, profession, and time of existence through the lens of a same-sex romance. Why not?! Who’s to say that every person who contributed something to history was a boring straight?
Mary lives in the Lyme Regis region of England, a remote and touristy coastal town where she digs up fossils and runs a gift shop with her mother. Her independence is both admired and feared, and her work unknown except to the most interested of scientists. One of those is Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), who, while on a tour of the country, makes a point to stop in on Mary and inquire about her work.
After convincing her to give him a tour of her excavation route, he ventures that it might be good for his wife to stay in the town and become Mary’s apprentice. So he leaves Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) in Mary’s care, much to her aggravation but with a salary that she cannot turn down. After a rocky start, they each end up infatuated with the values that the other—grace, fortitude—respectively doesn’t have.
Ammonite is visceral. Lee transports you, even if your screening of the film is on a laptop in lieu of a major film festival premiere. As with God’s Own Country, he has a way of making the frigid rural seaside seem both unforgiving and sumptuous, a dichotomy that turns out to be most hospitable to forbidden romance.
There’s something about the way this movie is going to be covered, and the obsession with the same-sex storyline, that’s gonna be a whole thing, which it both should and shouldn’t be.
The Big Scene in Ammonite is Mary and Charlotte’s transformative sex. It is achingly erotic. It’s horny as hell. It is graphic, realistic in ways that make headlines, as Ammonite already has. There is nudity. There are sex acts that, because of the dearth of queer representation on screen, are rarely put on film.
So how do you talk about Ammonite, the movie in which Academy Award-winning actress Kate Winslet makes headlines sight-unseen for a sex scene with Prestige It Girl Saoirse Ronan on camera, without being reductive?
For the record, the scene is cumbersome and passionate in a way that is true to two people figuring out their bodies and permission while simultaneously sent out of control by desire. There’s no score behind it. Just the sound of waves crashing and their lips smacking as they kiss, the bed creaking as they reposition their bodies to make love. It’s captivating.
Like much of the movie, the scene takes place with no dialogue. Mary and Charlotte communicate almost silently. It makes everything that much more intense. You wonder what it must be like to be in throes of love at a time like that when there is nothing to distract you from it. No phones. No one so curious as to judge. How overwhelming, but also beautiful.
We’re so used to romance being stylized on film and, specifically, lesbian sex being filtered through a warm orchestral score and soft cinematography. (Not to mention the hetero male gaze.) This is refreshing for its refusal to adhere to that. Still, when there’s a movie like this that features major celebrities in same-sex love scenes, there’s always an effort to set the discourse about how it was done and why it’s important.
Winslet in her interviews has already laid that foundation, speaking about choreographing the scene with Ronan and being comfortable in her body at her age.
And so the talking point is the sex scene, and it will continue to be. As such, there will be comparisons to how not just the scene, but the entire arc, compares to recent films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Blue Is the Warmest Color, or, in the genre of Oscar-winners playing lesbians, Carol. It’s because films like this still are not allowed to stand on their own. The examples are isolated enough that they necessitate comparison. Especially in regard to those superior films, that probably will be Ammonite’s Achilles heel.
It must be said that the movie is painfully slow to take off. It eventually proves effective to have telegraphed how distant and closed off Mary is, but it makes for a struggle to connect with the character. But when the connection between Mary and Charlotte is finally forged, the film is transcendent. There’s something so raw about the way they fumble into each other’s emotions and desires, exposed in a way that’s rarely seen on screen.
Winslet is going to catapult to a Best Actress Oscars conversation by virtue of the fact that she’s Kate Winslet in a lesbian movie that premiered at TIFF. She’s been in that conversation—and won—for weaker performances.
What’s striking about her Mary is how formidable her quiet and stillness is. It’s a movie star performance in terms of confidence, but a revelation for an actress we already expect a lot from.
And what’s striking about the film, however people might eventually gripe about its slowness or distance, is how casually the romance is portrayed. Winslet gave a fascinating quote to Vanity Fair when talking about the film: “I’m learning a good deal about same-sex relationships and how they’re perceived and debated because of Ammonite and because the relationship between these two female characters isn’t hidden.”
Sexual orientation is always the discourse, and we’re hyper aware that we’re perpetuating that right now in this article. The amazing thing about Ammonite is that sexual orientation is barely referenced, or even considered.
Don’t be confused. It’s certainly profound in the context of these women and their relationship. But it’s not weighed down by outside context, by unnecessary cinematic dressing, or even by any sort of spiraling on behalf of the characters. It’s love that’s allowed to be love. And it’s shocking that that is still so rare.