Yorkshireman Francis Lee, writer/director of celebrated queer romance God’s Own Country and now Ammonite, is not accustomed to the hullabaloo that whirls around when working with megastars like Titanic lead Kate Winslet and Lady Bird’s Saoirse Ronan.
“Nobody really cared about God’s Own Country when I was making it, but this was very different,” he says, a wry smile parting his well-kempt beard. “This film was being written about before I’d even shot a frame of it. And then filming in [south-west coastal English town] Lyme Regis, which is such a tiny little place, and every day being met by crowds of people and paparazzi was really tough for me, because I’m quite a quiet person.”
Winslet and Ronan took it in their stride. “They’re both so used to that that they just block it out and carry on.”
Winslet plays real-life pioneering 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning. By this stage in her career she was living a hard-scrabble life, scouring wind-blasted pebble beaches and muddy cliff faces hunting for fossils on what’s now known as the Jurassic Coast. Anning received little recognition from the men-only establishment, all too happy to display her staggering discoveries while claiming them as their own.
Her renown was nevertheless whispered widely, attracting the attention of would-be colleague Roderick Murchison (James McArdle), willing to pay good money to learn from the best. When he sets sail for an adventure, he leaves his depressed wife Charlotte (a remarkable Ronan) behind, assigning her to follow in Mary’s dirty booted footsteps.
Of course, Winslet and Ronan shooting outdoors would always have brought onlookers by the droves, but the film accrued particular attention because their characters’ grudging alliance turns to an all-consuming love affair. Some took umbrage at Lee’s reading in of a queer relationship where no historical proof exists.
“What I had never envisaged was that before I even shot a frame of this film, it was appearing in newspapers as this big controversy, and it really made me think about how we look at history,” Lee says. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that Mary Anning ever had a relationship with a man, but there’s lots of evidence that she had deep friendships with women. And where there is no absolute concrete proof of anything other than heterosexuality, heterosexuality is presumed.”
That does not mean queer people did not exist, only that their histories have often been obscured. “At that time, the medical profession felt that women didn’t have sexual pleasure organs, so the idea of two women being together didn’t figure.”
Lee’s hardly the first to read between the lines. “Interestingly, there are fictionalised novels about Mary, and in one it’s suggested she has a relationship with a man, and nobody complained. Nobody thought it was controversial. In fact, people would send me messages saying, ‘stop telling your lies, read this book for the facts,’ when the author has gone on record, saying, ‘I made it up’.”
He hopes he’s done Anning justice. “I looked at Mary’s life and there was this working-class woman living in this very patriarchal society. Her incredible finds, her relics as she called them, were appropriated by the men who bought them. And so I thought to myself, if I’m going to give her a relationship, I want that to feel respectful and equal. And that to me did not feel to be [with] a man within this society.”
The pushback troubles him. “This idea that if you portray somebody as gay, or lesbian or queer somehow detracts from them, lessens them, I find extraordinary.”
The paparazzi had a field day, forcing Lee to flee with Winslet and Ronan to shoot one of the film’s critical moments. “We had to get into a speedboat and zoom off down the coast to a private beach, where we could be assured there would be no photographers.”
Even with her ragged, dirty fingernails and bedraggled hair, there’s no dimming Winslet’s star quality. “She has that very undefinable quality,” Lee says. “There’s something that happens when you put a camera on her face. There’s a luminosity that shines out, and it’s fascinating.”
And yet, there’s no movie star ego to match. “Kate has no vanity,” he says. “So there was never a sense where she was looking at the camera and going, ‘not that angle’, or looking at the lighting going, ‘No’.”
Like Josh O’Connor and Alec Secareanu before Winslet and Ronan, Lee worked hard with both extraordinary actors to find the heart of their characters, tracing the line of their slow-smouldering attraction. Fans of his first feature will also be pleased to see Secareanu back as a doctor with amorous feelings for Anning (no furious missives penned about that detail) and the magnificent Gemma Jones who, in a beautiful meta-textual touch, shares two lines with her role in God’s Own Country.
Both features fold into one another. “It was continuing the journey of that relationship started in God’s Own Country and coming at it a bit further down the line, you know, with somebody who’s been through a relationship and been very hurt by it then having to open up again,” Lee says. “I’ve always felt that however painful it is to come out of a relationship, and it is, that if you can have learned something, if you can have a sense of growth, then that relationship has been very worthwhile.”
Having Secareanu and Jones back was joyous. “They’re very present in my life and they’re so brilliant that I just think any opportunity I can, if you discover people who you have an affinity to and love being around, you’re just always going to ask them back.”
He also got to cast a favourite actor in Killing Eve’s Fiona Shaw, as an estranged figure from Anning’s past. “What I’m trying to do is always elevate these characters, and Fiona brings an iconic image and feel with her, endowing that character with all that she has to have in an instant.”
Much like the luminosity of Winslet who says so much with a glance. There’s a glorious moment, late in the film, where, in true British fashion, Anning diverts emotional turbulence with chat about the weather. Lee smiles, “Sometimes there is nothing you can say when your heart is breaking, but you need to fill that silence. And Kate does it so well.”
Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, is in cinemas from Thursday 14 January.
Follow the author @SARussellwords