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Kate Winslet & Ammonite's Director on the Power of Hands in Queer Love

Kate Winslet & Ammonite's Director on the Power of Hands in Queer Love


Ammonite star Kate Winslet and writer-director Francis Lee speak with The Advocate about connection, hands, and a timeless love story between women. 

There's a scene in Francis Lee's Ammonite where Saoirse Ronan's Charlotte, visiting the seaside to treat her melancholia and recovering from an illness at the home of Kate Winslet's isolated and guarded Mary Anning, places a hand on Mary's back. Mary's carriage shifts, and with just a slight inflection of her shoulder, Winslet telegraphs her character's chronic longing for contact and the healing effects of touch.

"This is a film that is about the power of connections, and the power of touch, however small that might be,' Winslet tells The Advocate. "At a time now, when we crave connection and affection so much because we all have had to go without it in certain ways because of COVID, to watch a film like this. ... When Charlotte and Mary just touch hands, it's mind-numbingly electric, because the touch is so sparse for so much of the story."

"So much of their connection is made through looks and just falling into the same rhythm as one another, in spite of their class differences," Winslet says of Charlotte, an upper-class married woman Mary initially begrudgingly tutors and nurses back to health before they inevitably fall in love.

To play the role of the real-life 19th-century paleontologist, by night Winslet lived alone in a cottage on a bluff where the waves crashed below her like something out of a gothic novel.

"There was a gigantic section of cliff, 200 meters down from the cottage where I was, that actually collapsed one day right onto the beach. It was all very dramatic," Winslet says.

By day, she roamed the beaches of England's Lyme Regis with a fossil expert, learning to engage the tools of the trade, including a hammer and chisel. But in keeping with the film's exploration of the value of women's work and an innate need for physical contact, Winslet's/Mary's hands became the tools most integral to the story. The artistry of Anning's work is exposed like fine sculptures in scenes with Mary digging into the curves of any given fossil with knowing fingers before lightly brushed away the fine grit.

An Oscar and Emmy winner who kick-started her career playing queer in 1994's Heavenly Creatures, Winslet not only learned to excavate fossils. She says she "spent months copying [Mary's] hand from old diary pages, and excerpts that they have at Lyme Regis Museum" to perfect Anning's hand for letters and for creating sketches of her fossils and of Mary's eventual love Charlotte.

Writer and director Lee (God's Own Country) homes in on several close-ups of Winslet's hands throughout the film. They're weathered, raw, and often caked with mud.

"We would allocate extra time in the morning to get my hands looking like Mary's hands, or how we thought Mary's hands ought to be," Winslet says. "So I was really pleased that we saw a lot of that in the story, because her hands were very much her tools. It was her way of doing the job that she needed to do."

"Hands, to me in particular the backs of the person's hands, are one of the most beautiful things in the world, because they show the lives that we've lived, the loves that we've lost, the love that we've felt, the work that we've put into anything," she adds. "Certainly in Mary's case, her hands are her survival."

With them being critical implements of Anning's trade, the image of those well-worn instruments punctuates Ammonite's investigation of class and the appropriation of women's work by men -- the opening sequence sees a man erasing Mary's name from her earliest fossil as it's brought to the British Museum in London. With Mary in virtual isolation on the rocky shores of England's "Jurassic Coast" until Charlotte is left to Mary's care, the hands are also the signifiers of what Winslet and Lee concur is the film's theme -- "the power of touch," something that carries additional meaning since so many in the world had been isolating for the better part of a year when Neon released the film late in 2020.


Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan

If there were any question as to the pivotal meaning of contact in the film, Lee's first shot of Mary is a close-up of her hand lighting a candle before pulling out to reveal she's huddled in her bed alone in the freezing, austere dwelling she shares with her mother, Molly (Gemma Jones). The hands, of course, will find their way to Charlotte as they consummate their desire, repeatedly making that bed/space a place of renewal.

"It's definitely a film I wrote about that emotional space of loneliness. ... And that kind of idea of human-to-human physical contact, because I think when you're in that space of being lonely and feeling very closed down, that's something that goes away very quickly, that sense memory of being touched or being held," Lee tells The Advocate about how Anning worked her way into his consciousness during a time of relative isolation.

"I was actually doing the tours for my first film, God's Own Country, around the world. I was on my own. I was pretty lonely. I had my laptop, and I was looking for a gift for a loved one," Lee says. "I was looking for a polished stone or a fossil because I didn't have much money and they were cheap. Mary Anning's name kept coming up, so I just started to read about her. I was instantly struck by her, mainly because of her circumstances."

"I'm very obsessed by the class system. And here was this person who was born into pretty much a life of poverty, working class, a woman in a very patriarchal class-ridden society, had no or very little access to education, just had a Sunday school education," he says. "Through her own ingenuity, her own self-knowledge, and her will, really, to survive, rose to be what we would now call one of the leading paleontologists of her generation."

Winslet was also taken by Anning's story of some triumph in the face of "extraordinary hardships," which included a life of poverty, a lack of recognition for her work, her home having been flooded twice, and the deaths of several siblings and her father (who fell down a cliff where he'd taught her to fossil when she was 11).

"A tale like Mary's becomes so much more fascinating when we do live in a time when we need to be really singing the praises of great women globally, historically, and now and forever," Winslet says. "I think no one wants to be quiet anymore about achievements of greatness by women in the past, or ever again. And so to have participated in the telling of the story about a woman who, the majority of the audience that may see this film, will never have heard of, to me, is an enormous privilege."


Francis Lee and Winslet

As for Ammonite's love story, it's not the first time Lee, a gay man from West Yorkshire, England, with a working-class background, delved into intersecting themes of isolation, class, and queer love. God's Own Country (2017), a contemporary story about gay sheep farmers who find love and solace in one another while alone in the English countryside, in many ways, thematically mirrors Ammonite. While there's no evidence that Anning had affairs with women, there's no evidence to the contrary, and Lee says the default is most often a presumption of heterosexuality, which he sought to avoid.

"I never wanted to write a biopic about Mary. I wanted to write a snapshot of her, of her life," Lee says. "I wanted to do everything I could to elevate her, to respect her, to give her a position that I felt she should have had at the time. I wanted to look at a relationship for her because I'm very obsessed by human relationships. I thought, There was no evidence she ever had a relationship with a man, whatsoever, but there was evidence that she had friendships with women."

"I thought I couldn't give her a relationship with a man because that didn't feel respectful in this society. It felt like she would then be the subject of that man, performing the will of that man," he says. "Then there was this idea within the medical profession at the time this film is set, that women didn't have any sexual pleasure organs. So the idea that two women could be in a relationship together, that was intimate and physical..."

Lee went as far as to craft a pair of thoughtful scenes with Fiona Shaw's Elizabeth Philpot that reveal not only that Charlotte is not Mary's first love, but that Mary's work came between them as it would also be the wedge between her and Charlotte.


Ronan and Winslet

Much ado was made in the media about how Winslet and Ronan choreographed a fiery sex scene that unfolded in Mary's tiny bed in that dank room seen in the opening shot. But Lee avoids the trope of a single culminating sex scene. As befits the film in which connection is critical to the story, once the physical touch between the women in Ammonite begins, Mary and Charlotte, free of pathos, find release in one another again and again. One post-coital scene finds a particularly relaxed Mary repeating a naughty limerick at Charlotte's behest.

For Winslet, who played queer roles in two other films based on real people in Heavenly Creatures and Iris (2001), Lee balances Mary's relationship with Charlotte with the dueling narratives of Mary's work and their class difference. Winslet recalls a sequence toward the close of the film where Mary scrapes together enough money to visit her love, whose husband has called her home to London.

"I feel with Mary that it was just as much of a big deal for Mary Anning to leave Lyme Regis and go to London by herself on a boat as it was for her to be in an intimate relationship with a woman," she says.

"One of the most moving lines to me in the film, 'I wish you'd told me before. I could have saved the boat fare,' when she goes to London to see her. It just always got me every time, because of course, that was a huge amount of money for Mary to have paid, to go on a boat to London."

Beyond excavating the power of touch, Lee, whose oeuvre now includes two queer-themed films, sought to tell a story that moved beyond sexuality.

"Ammonite is an incredibly personal film. I really liked the idea that neither of these characters would feel, in a sense, that the difficulty around their relationship would be the problems or the issues around sexuality," Lee says. "I really liked the idea that what they were going to explore, the problems would come somewhere else."

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