“The made-up love affair insults women – the clothes are gorgeous though.” This is one of the latest articles by The Telegraph’s Head of Fashion, Lisa Armstrong, on the subject of Francis Lee’s, Ammonite. If you haven’t watched it yet, Ammonite is the imagined romance between the paleontologist, Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and her young houseguest, Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan). It’s one of the few lesbian films that has made it into mainstream cinema recently, which in turn has elicited a variety of responses. Unfortunately, reactions like Armstrong’s don’t come as a surprise.
Before we dig into the article, it’s important to keep in mind that I have no interest in taking part in cancel culture. Instead, I’m interested in looking at the kind of society that prompts this kind of response, and how we can best engage in conversations with people who have a different worldview. Armstrong has had a long and successful career as a fashion journalist, and her article makes some interesting observations about the film’s costume design, observations that I certainly would have never made with my limited fashion knowledge. Which was why, after reading ten paragraphs on the dresses worn on set, it was a bit jarring to read the last two paragraphs on the subject of Anning’s romance, and Armstrong’s objection to it. Armstrong herself said it: such an objection could result in someone being called a homophobe. Why then, would she choose to write so little on a subject that demands so much? I don’t think she’s a homophobe, but it does smell a lot like clickbait.
Armstrong’s main point (outside the subject of fashion) seems to be that the sex was just added to make Anning interesting (“But I guess women just aren’t interesting if there isn’t a sex scene”), and that men aren’t subject to the same cinematic treatment. The thing is, sex and romance in historical fiction is nothing new. If done successfully, it can be used to portray multi-dimensional characters with a wide range of experiences and emotions. This is particularly the case in Ammonite, which portrays a reserved and slightly bitter Anning opening herself up to the possibility of being loved whilst at the same time dealing with the male-dominated scientific community’s admiration and rejection of her work. It’s an emotional journey, that yes, contains a total of two sex scenes, but which at no point feel gratuitous or cheap. Just look at the way Kate Winslet describes her experience shooting these specific scenes:
“It was interesting for me shooting the more intimate scenes with Saoirse. It made me almost annoyed with myself, in the sense that I’ve filmed intimate scenes before, but mostly with male actors – and it suddenly occurred to me that there is an automatic power dynamic that comes into play when doing that type of scene with a man… The thing that I feel the most when I watch the film, and I feel genuinely proudest of is that this is a same-sex, romantic relationship, intimate relationship…They are simply in love.” (full article here)
It’s not like the often unnecessary sex scenes we see in other historical dramas, like The Tudors or even Bridgerton (which Armstrong also reviewed, yet raised no qualms on the subject…). However, I will agree with Armstrong that women – both heterosexual and homosexual – have been sexualized in this genre much more than men. A quick glance at IMDB’s top titles for Erotic Period Drama seems to only show films with female protagonists. This is not exactly the kind of list feminist cinephiles were aiming for.
This leads me to my second point on the visualization of lesbians on screen. Because there are so few lesbian films that get distributed to massive audiences, most people outside of the community will have a very narrow view of what lesbian cinema entails. Most of it will probably be period pieces, which, as we’ve seen, lend themselves to being sexualized by the male gaze if not done properly. The subject of sex probably seems more striking to a heterosexual audience that not only has to grapple with a beloved historical figure’s newly imagined sexual desires, but their queering as well. This was the kind of reaction that Armstrong’s piece seems to suggest, particularly in her repeated reference to Anning as the hero of a “children’s book” she grew up reading. There seems to be an emotional attachment there that someone like myself, from outside the UK, just wouldn’t understand.
But as our subscribers will know, lesbians onscreen can be so much more than just the period pieces Hollywood’s been feeding its viewers. We’re so much more than just coming-out films or historical dramas with forbidden romances. We’re frustrated artists (Pineapple), perplexed parents (Rain Beau’s End), or lovers in mourning (See My Ghost Passing Away), to mention only a few examples. In offering a wider range of experiences we prepare audiences for films like Ammonite, that more than queering the past, simply offer a human story on love and fragility.
This article was written by:
Isidora has written for various student papers, offering articles from film reviews to opinion pieces that often had Latin American cultural events or productions as the focus of the piece.
She has just graduated from her MPhil in Comparative Literatures from the University of Cambridge, and will be going on to do her PhD in Hispanic Studies in Toronto.