Some say “She sells seashells by the seashore” is about Victorian fossil collector and premier female paleontologist Mary Anning. While it’s true, she did sell ammonites by the cliffs of Lyme Regis, there’s no proof the tongue-twister is about her. Just as there’s no evidence Anning enjoyed lesbian sex, which is the spin on the film “Ammonite” (2020).
Of course, that doesn’t mean the pioneering scientist isn’t worthy of a biopic. Though born into poverty, she taught herself to read English — and French! After surviving a supposed lightening attack as a baby, Anning unearthed an ichthyosaur skeleton when she was just twelve. As she grew, so did her groundbreaking discoveries (including a plesiosaur and pterosaur) which influenced Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Anning also encouraged other 19th-century women to get involved in science at a time when the field was dominated by men. As a woman, Anning couldn’t join the Geological Society of London even though her discoveries were discussed in its lectures. Nor was she allowed to publish papers on her findings when many of her male colleagues did so without giving her credit.
Despite the discrimination, Anning gained international attention yet was unable to rise above her working-class station. She was given some financial support from the British government and a few good men, including geologist Henry De la Beche, who was once speculated to be Anning’s secret love due to the friendship they shared as tweens.
At that time, Anning was mentored by artist and fossil collector Elizabeth Philpot, a wealthy woman who encouraged her to study geology. But in Francis Lee’s film, the guidance Philpot (Fiona Shaw) provided is glossed over in favor of presenting her as a past lover of the now grown Anning (Kate Winslet).
Lee also rewrites Anning’s friend Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) as a fainthearted wife forced by her husband (James McArdle) to search for fossils. However, it was mineralogy enthusiast Charlotte who steered her spouse into scientific pursuits in lieu of fox hunting.
Similar to Anning, Charlotte championed women in science. But rather than focusing on female empowerment, Lee opts for a lesbian love story that has the women seeking to stimulate their bodies more than their minds. Indeed, the film features a semi-graphic sex scene that seems to come out of nowhere.
Back when “Seinfeld” was on, Jerry described his take on the “girl stuff” female friends do together. “Flower shows, shopping for pretty bows, and then back to her place, strip down to bra and panties for a tickle fight.” Exchange the shopping for an afternoon excavation and the pretty bows for a sweaty fever, and that pretty much sums up Lee’s interpretation of female relations.
Perhaps that’s why women writers are better equipped to relay their experiences. Take “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), the 19th-century-set film that first cast Winslet as the daughter of Gemma Jones (who plays her mum again in “Ammonite”). Thanks to Emma Thompson’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel, audiences are shown the multifaceted functions of various female relationships with nary a tickle fight in sight.
Contrary to what straight men like Seinfeld or queer men like Lee may surmise, women want platonic friendships. A recent survey commissioned by BloomsyBox found that more than half of the 2,000 American women polled said they’d rather be quarantined with their closest female friend than a romantic partner.
Even if Mary Anning and Charlotte Murchison were lesbian lovers, it hardly seems relevant unless they rolled onto an important fossil while having sex on the beach. Stripping them of their personalities in favor of having them strip in bed perpetuates the shallow way in which women are depicted as objects of desire instead of accomplished humans.
Apart from a shot of Anning visually taking her place among the celebrated male scientists whose portraits hang in the British Museum, “Ammonite” does a disservice to women of all orientations because it ultimately says whatever a woman achieves is uninteresting unless she shows her sex.