A few years have passed since Francis Lee came to the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but he remembers the night well. “It was incredibly joyful. Walking out into that cinema [Festival Theatre] in Edinburgh, that massive, beautiful space, and seeing all those people… it was just glorious and fun and exciting and emotional.” His debut God’s Own Country, following jubilant premieres at Sundance and Berlinale, had made it to Edinburgh for its UK Premiere at the Festival’s 2017 Opening Gala.
Combining ruggedly generous characters with tender romance, God’s Own Country is a love story between frustrated young farmer Johnny and Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe. The film’s poster sits proudly above the mantlepiece in the Filmhouse offices four years later and there is no sign of it moving. Lee smiles warmly when he hears this, as if the fact helps confirm the film’s growing legacy in the record books of British queer cinema. He joins us on Zoom from his home in rural Yorkshire to discuss God’s Own Country, his sophomore feature Ammonite and the common, and often personal, threads that unite his queer storytelling.
Exploring the life and work of the 19th century palaeontologist Mary Anning, Ammonite is a gentle and all-consuming love story set on Dorset’s startling Jurassic Coast. Now the days of famed and lucrative discoveries are behind her, Mary (played by a stunning Kate Winslet) spends her time collecting common fossils to flog to tourists, barely supporting herself and her ailing mother. When a wealthy gentleman offers Mary ample payment to provide companionship to his young wife, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan), Mary begrudgingly accepts. Initially hostile towards each other, the two women are drawn closer by their isolated circumstances and a very intimate and deliberate love story emerges.
Ammonite was a “very personal” project from the beginning. Drawn to Anning‘s working-class circumstances – she was born into poverty and was scantly educated – her mostly unknown life story became an intriguing possibility to Lee. “I think she felt like a hidden voice from my point of view because she was working class,” Lee says, as a working-class, and queer, filmmaker himself with a background in hard grafting, having worked in a scrapyard to help finance God’s Own Country. “I wanted to make another working-class queer story, because I feel that these are voices we are not getting to see on screen in these kinds of films.”
Despite her presence as a leading palaeontologist of her time, Anning’s work was commonly passed off by wealthy men as their own. “It was an incredibly patriarchal society and that’s what blocked her a lot of the time.” This purposeful exploitation of her talent meant that her legacy was never recognised throughout her life. Lee took it upon himself to write a respectful story that was “worthy” of her accomplishments, but also to bring “a spotlight onto working class people, women, queer histories and queer stories.”
"In history, for historians, where there is no absolute concrete proof of a queer life, they assume heterosexuality."
God’s Own Country and Ammonite are two unique stories visibly platforming queer lives, which tackle complex emotions of grief, loneliness and passion with a deft transparency. More remarkably, both films do not show any doubt, confusion or sadness to their characters’ sexualities. The need for queer representation in cinema is important, but the particular prominence of queer-fronted love stories takes a huge step towards normalising everyday LGBTQ+ experiences.
Lesbian narratives are mostly erased or demeaned as common friendships in the historical archives, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that does not mean they did not exist. “I felt that because there was nothing written about [Mary’s] personal life then I could put my own take on that… I was really interested in that idea that there is no evidence whatsoever that she ever had a relationship with a man. In history, for historians, where there is no absolute concrete proof of a queer life, they assume heterosexuality. I thought that was really interesting, because obviously we know there isn’t just gay, lesbian, bisexual. There’s asexual, there’s non-binary, there’s lots of different aspects to somebody.”
Lee explains that the imagined queer romance emerged from this need for Anning to receive some recognition. “To me it felt like the most respectful and elevating thing to do was to give her a romance with somebody who felt like they could be an equal in this society… There is evidence of these incredible life-long passionate, romantic, supportive relationships that women were having with women through the letters they were writing to each other and I wanted to honour that… I think what was really important was to look at that support that woman gave women and seeing women work together, physically work together, not just emotional support.”
Even with two of the world’s most famous movie stars in the lead roles, the film’s fictional storyline has not escaped backlash. Various fictionalised novels have written storylines suggesting Anning had relationships with men, but it is only Ammonite’s queer love story that has come under fire, much to Lee’s frustration.
"Misogyny is alive and well and kicking."
“I have been very shocked to see some of the reactions to this and the way in which people have been very dogmatic and angry that I have suggested she might have had a same-sex relationship. Making this film made me realise that we have made leaps and bounds in terms of gender and sexuality, but actually, there is still an awful long way to go. And one thing I properly realise now is that misogyny is alive and well and kicking. That actually has really impacted on me and made me re-think how I interact and who I am and all that kind of thing. Stories about queer men are treated very, very different to stories about queer woman and that I didn’t realise.”
Unconventionally spotlighting a working class, queer woman, Ammonite does not stop there in flipping the typical narrative of a period drama. “I distinctly remember when I was doing the research on the film, there was this fantastic film on working class women in this period. I came across all these fisherwomen and they wore trousers and tucked their skirts into the top of their trousers and that obviously gave them the ability to do what they needed to do for work. I loved this idea that Mary had reappropriated a pair of her Father’s trousers.”
Michael O’Connor’s costume design is really something to marvel over. With the story’s working-class character at its beating heart, scenes of manual labour are emphasised by the costumes’ textures and Lee references his own experiences as inspiration. “One of the things about my background and being working class, I’ve always felt uncomfortable in social situations that I’m not used to, so we were able to use the clothes to emphasise this… When Charlotte goes out in her gorgeous, expensive, beautiful, clean, high-fashion frock, Mary’s there in her second-best dress with frayed collars.”
Ammonite is a narrative on normalising the unconventional and making it beautiful. Lee very cleverly layers traditional ideas of femininity with the qualities that women were supposed to reject and even the costumes were able to demonstrate this. “Corsets were super interesting, because we decided that Mary wouldn’t wear a corset when she went out fossilling. It would be too restrictive. She wouldn’t be able to bend, or pick things up. These real subtle things with the costumes helped build something that didn’t just feel like a period film. These were not costumes; they were the clothes that these characters wore and lived in.”
Similarly, the film’s sex scenes are quietly defiant, mostly just by visibly existing on screen. As Lee bluntly describes queer sex scenes in cinema, “you don’t see it or you pan to a tree.” Both in God’s Own Country and Ammonite, raw and intimate sex scenes are used as part of the narrative, replacing dialogue to tell the story. This normalisation of queer sex on screen is refreshing to see and the narrative is rewarded for it.
Lee worked hard to ensure these scenes captured the emotional and weight necessary to carry the story. “[Sex] can be erotic, or soft, or loving, or hard or whatever it is and I think we wanted to really find the very specific way in which they communicated in those intimate scenes… With Kate and Saoirse, it is very much about me listening and them doing a lot of talking around what it should feel like and look like and what the possibilities might be.” Despite being written and directed by a male gaze, Ammonite’s sex scenes are not for the male gaze. Instead, they offer an honest, character-driven perspective that respects the story and the community it advocates for.
"Everybody told me that no one would go and see [God's Own Country]"
“The male gaze thing I didn’t think much about, I have to be honest, because I think the films I tell are so character driven… How do we make it as truthful as possible? I spend painstaking hours writing a very, very detailed script. In the script, every look, every glance, every nuance, every movement is all notated in the script.”
Where nineteenth century men stepped in and misappropriated Mary Anning’s work to her legacy’s detriment, Lee has stepped in to reappropriate for the greater good. Queer stories, whether caked in mud from the Yorkshire moors or drenched in nineteenth century seawater, are vital to our understanding of lived LGBTQ+ experiences and this representation matters the most. “Everybody told me that no one would go and see [God’s Own Country],” Lee says, adding proudly, “and that didn’t turn out to be the truth.”
Establishing himself as something of a filmmaking pioneer in unsung queer narratives, God’s Own Country and Ammonite form a very companionable cinematic couplet. But was this Lee’s aim from the beginning? “I hadn’t really thought that through... It was a very natural process really. By the end of making the film, it became apparent, clearly, that it was a companion piece to God’s Own Country.” As often happens with queer romances, what might begin as a friendship normally ends up becoming something much more meaningful.