So many women’s stories are about freedom: choosing it, fearing it, paying for it. At the London Film Festival this year, two of the most talked about features – Nomadland and Ammonite – had the same conflict at the centre: uncompromising older women trading intimacy and security for a life lived on their own terms.

We see the idea of love as a distraction from self-fulfillment in men’s stories all the time. But these things so often play out in a gendered way. From Frankenstein to La La Land, over and over men’s passions, lifestyles and interests are seen as tragically incompatible with love (in the latter, the unnecessary coda seems to exist just to drive home that somehow she could mix success with family, but he could only have one or the other). Men release, abandon or destroy the object of their affection, in order to have their own growth – even if, in reality, we know it’s far easier for men to “have it all”. For the women of Ammonite and Nomadland, it’s a more complex question of what it means to be free. 

Kate Winslet Ammonite

Courtesy of: Lionsgate

In Ammonite, Mary Anning’s (Kate Winslet) work isn’t actually under any real threat. While her young lover Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) thoughtlessly disregards the daily scrabbles in the dirt and suggests comfort will allow Anning to focus on “real, scientific” endeavours, there’s no suggestion that Anning should fully sacrifice what she loves for who she loves. It’s not a simple binary choice, but she still rejects it, saying (in one of the film’s most awkward lines) that she’d be “a bird in a gilded cage”. This after an equally unsubtle transition between a moth trapped under a glass and Charlotte visibly depressed in her bed. In Nomadland, Fern doesn’t take offence at the offer to swap her icy van for a warm bed and stability, but she doesn’t take it up either. Her life on the road preserves something of herself, of her former choices, and she’s not willing to surrender that – no matter the hardships.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Anning and Fern are both portrayed as more or less the last woman standing. We all know that family life is both carrot and stick in female stories – and sometimes in reality. On film, it tends to represent the true fulfilment of both love and drudgery. These narratives are therefore easier to tell for older women who either don’t have children or whose children have long since fled the nest. Because can anyone choose freedom when there are bottoms to be wiped and schoolwork to be checked? And how can a woman who leaves children behind be portrayed sympathetically? 

Ammonite is particularly strong on understanding ‘women’s work’. It shows it all: the domestic scrubbing, cooking and cleaning, and on top of that Anning’s profession full of scraping, wiping, grubbing, picking, crafting and sketching. The shots linger on Winslet’s battered hands. All this work, for men to make it official with a pretty plaque, and take the credit. And not just for her professional work: a paternalistic young doctor first guilts her into nursing her “fellow sister” and then praises her elaborately – finally awkwardly courting her as if he won’t be happy until he, too, has papered his name over hers. But in Nomadland too, it’s striking: a man sells the dream of the itinerant lifestyle, while an older woman explains toilet buckets and “learning to deal with your own shit”. 

The Human Voice Tilda Swinton (1)

Courtesy of: Pathé

Isolation, in this context, seems brave. It’s associated with physical discomfort – both films tackle dealing with cold weather – as well as emotional distance. And yet there’s a nobility cast on that choice. Perhaps it’s because at the other end of the spectrum, when older women are abandoned, they so often seem pathetic, undignified. In another festival offering, Pedro Almodóvar’s poignant short The Human Voice, he modernises a Jean Cocteau play for “an era in which isolation has become a way of life”. In it, Tilda Swinton’s heartbroken Woman performs every stage of grief down the phone to her ex-lover. And it’s only when she’s emptied herself out, destroyed everything she built within the relationship, that she can reclaim her own identity. Like Anning and Fern, the price of freedom – in this case thrust on her, rather than chosen – is giving up comforts and appearances. Independence means living outside the lines, but not, as in so many men’s stories, in the pursuit of greatness. It’s simply in the pursuit of self.

What’s a little harder to find, at least at the moment, is what happens next. Certainly they’re not unheard of, but stories that centre independent older women as characters, not conflicts, aren’t overly common. There is an inescapable gendered element to this: a woman alone generally signposts danger, as when Nomadland sees a sleeping Fern briefly terrified when a cop knocks on her window in the night and tells her to move on. It does, though, hint at plenty more than it can deliver: in the depiction of Fern’s life right now, we understand what the rest of it could be like. 

Still, Ammonite suggests there’s plenty more there to say; Anning’s work continued and indeed continues to outlive her personality (to the point that Francis Lee could have pretty free rein creatively with the facts of her life). There’s more to her life than this window into it. Even Swinton’s Woman narrates to her dog the possibility of living with, and through, pain –  but we don’t get to see it. If, right now, we’re moving through a moment of examining the conflicts in female freedom, perhaps in the next phase we’ll see a cluster of celebrated art around what women choose to do with it.