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How The Dig and Ammonite Fetishize Britishness

In celebrating unsung heroes of history, two new movies overly romanticize the past.

Courtesy of NEON
Kate Winslet as Mary Anning and Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte in “Ammonite”

With the release of the drama Ammonite, paleontology has joined palace intrigue and oil painting on the list of surprising provocations to lesbian sex in recent historical films. Ammonite is a fictionalized account of a love story between the famous (real) fossil hunter Mary Anning and an ailing woman tourist, set at the seaside in 1840s England. Like fellow queer imagined histories The Favourite (2018) and Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), Ammonite is sensuous and dark, almost luxuriantly interested in the textures of the preindustrial past—leather, rain, mud, candlelight, stone. 

Kate Winslet plays Mary as a grumpy and underpaid butch with an expert, elemental connection to the coastline she sifts through. She’s left caring for the (fictional) young and wilted Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan, when her rude husband goes off on a continental jaunt. The hostility between the women fades as they dig up bits of what was once Jurassic marine life together on the beach, a mutual adoration blooming over handfuls of pebbles.

There’s feminist history here with intrinsic appeal. Before she thaws out in Charlotte’s arms, Mary is bitter over her long-delayed recognition by the British academy and is badly remunerated. Her discoveries in Jurassic paleontology, including several ichthyosaur specimens and the first plesiosaur, would have staggering implications at a time when Christians commonly believed the Earth was about 6,000 years old. But the local nature of her discoveries and the fact that Anning found several of her best specimens as a child counted against her, and Ammonite’s force partly comes from finally giving Anning the recognition that is her due.

Instead of getting bogged down in the science of fossils, director Francis Lee (God’s Own Country) wisely focuses Ammonite on the materials and sounds and colors of the Dorset coast. Although some reviews have faulted Ammonite for being too slow and subtle, its sexual metaphors quickly tend toward the obvious: Digging up ancient mollusks and unlocking their fleshy secrets becomes a metaphor for gay sex quite fast. 

Mary is tough and closed off, for example, like a shelled ammonite made hard as rock by external pressure. She melts as Charlotte warms up; Saoirse Ronan’s face gradually shades from monochrome to pink over the course of the film, as she learns more and more about fossils and Mary. The big first kiss eventually comes while Mary is cleaning the fossil-digging tools, which she soon abandons to literally crawl under Charlotte’s skirt. 

After Mary cracks open a promising-looking stone Charlotte has found on the beach, which they both—sensually—went on their knees through the mud to retrieve, Charlotte smirks, “I’m pleased my rock was worth the work,” with a suggestiveness worthy of Sex and the City. Later she sits on Winslet’s face.  

(There’s precedent for slightly corny lesbian eroticizations of the seaside. In one memorably specific sex scene from 1992’s Written on the Body, for example, Jeanette Winterson described a character’s body as smelling “of rockpools … refilled each day with fresh tides of longing.”) 

Ammonite’s eroticism is enhanced by its strong evocation of temperature, especially the contrasts between the heat and cold characteristic of nineteenth-century life. When everything else is made of metal, wood, and stone, contact between human skin on film looks as hot as the tectonic pressure that creates mountains. That the film connects queer sex with elemental forces as deep as time, hot and cold, ocean and stone and sun, is of course a political argument. Gay sex is as ancient and true and suitable for excavation, these stories say, as dinosaurs.

Why lesbian period drama, and why now? The answer partly lies, I think, in the climatological concerns that color The Favourite and Portrait of a Lady on Fire as much as Ammonite. The moods of these movies almost appear to be an extension of the weather: In the age of climate anxiety, figuring queer desire through landscape makes it seem both precious and terribly vulnerable. 

Despite its sensory appeal, however, Ammonite’s vision of preindustrial history—where the truth about gay sex hides away underground like bones—seems to suggest that authentic queer sexuality and repressive Victorian social codes are inherently opposite. That idea leaves little space for Mary and Charlotte’s erotic relationship to exist as part of the very tensions inherent to the restrictive culture of the nineteenth century: the eroticism of the unsaid, the repressed fantasy that only grows. When Mary takes care of Charlotte while she’s sick, for example, there’s a quasi-maternal power play going on that Ammonite doesn’t let itself explore fully, because its investigation of sexuality skews so heavily toward geology.

The new Netflix feature film The Dig relies on a similarly politicized concept of digging, but uses ancient relics as an explicit metaphor for national and ethnic identity. Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan star as the archeologist Basil Brown and landowner Edith Pretty, in the story of the 1939 discovery of an early medieval burial site at Sutton Hoo. A vanishingly rare and ancient find, it came by coincidence on the eve of World War II, and The Dig derives its pace from the struggle to recover its contents before the bombing began.

As with Mary Anning in Ammonite, Basil Brown is a real hero, another working-class autodidact who spent his life finding extraordinary things in the ground. The film tells a true story, down to the fact that Pretty protected Brown’s work at the site and generally functioned as a benevolent supervisor. As with Mary Anning in Ammonite, The Dig presents Brown as a wise and insightful local whose gifts are misunderstood by the academic elite.

Sadly, the movie declines to show much of what was actually recovered, instead letting the ghostly imprint of the ship that was buried there stand in for the whole. The Sutton Hoo hoard contained extraordinary objects in metal, including an adorned helmet and Byzantine silver, but The Dig gets sidetracked into a dismal romance plot between Lily James (as the real archeologist Peggy Piggott, whose legal name was Margaret Guido) and Johnny Flynn as a fictional everyman about to set off for war. “So little time before world events confound us,” one of the archeologists comments, just to make it all clear. “It’s a race,” he says, “an absolute race.”

The historical reasoning of The Dig makes Ammonite’s climatological themes seem very profound by comparison. First, Edith Pretty’s sci-fi-mad young son sets us up with some belabored connections between the future and the past as he scampers around the excavation site. “The Vikings and the space pilots are the same, really, aren’t they?” he asks his mother. “Both sail to distant lands and do battle in ships!” Later, when Basil Brown contemplates leaving the project over clashes with snooty officials from the British Museum, his wife delivers a drippy speech exhorting him to persist. “It’s for the future,” she says with an earnest smile. “So that the next generations can know where they came from.” 

The historical analogies have a more sinister component, too. The contents of the Sutton Hoo mound date from the sixth or seventh centuries and a culture that spoke a Germanic language. Called “Anglo-Saxon” in the film, this early medieval period of British history has been appropriated, in modern times, as a kind of imaginary myth of ethnic purity for whites in search of one. Think of the term’s role in the medieval cosplay we’ve seen flourish among alt-right reactionaries in the U.S. since Charlottesville.

When Mrs. Brown suggests that there’s a straight line running through history between the Sutton Hoo hoardmakers and the lads setting off for World War II, she uses a nationalist rhetoric that has nothing to do with the actual mound her husband has dug up and everything to do with the bad arguments leaders use to get young men to fight and die. At the end of her speech, she rephrases her point as a yet more explicitly patriotic question to her husband: “Why else would you be playing around in the dirt while the rest of the country prepares for war?” 

This is a simplification of the role of the past in national identity made worse, not better, by the soppiness of its delivery—The Dig is bathed in late-summer light and the sweet smiles of country folk. It takes all its stakes from the context of military invasion, framing the protection of British heritage as a war effort of its own merit. Both The Dig and Ammonite fetishize Britishness in ways that make Mary Anning and Basil Brown seem less like serious researchers and more like Braveheart-style symbols of misunderstood autochthonous glory. There are limits to how deep you can dig with romanticization as your tools.