Ammonite as Vertigo: Watching Francis Lee’s movie in a spin with Hitchcock.

Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) and Charlotte Murchison (Saoirse Ronan) in ‘Ammonite’ (Francis Lee 2020)

With cavalier indifference to biopic accuracy, in Ammonite, Francis Lee addresses interclass love at a time when the stratification of rank in Britain was as petrified as the life forms palaeontologist Mary Anning finds crushed in rocks. She is a scavenger, wrestling amorphous boulders from drab cliffs in howling winds. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 classic Vertigo presents an analogous rift between desire and class. A comparison of the two movies will show that, like Hitchcock’s lead, Scottie, Mary is a victim of systemic entitlement and its perverse machinations.

Now, the widespread vogue for fossils is waning, former youthful prodigy Anning’s shop in Lyme Regis is an icy low-key place. Mary, played with stoicism by Kate Winslet, is embittered in mid-life and in need of change. Living is a battle against cloying mud, wind, and tenacious calcification. She spends hours, days, and weeks scraping deposits from petrified shells and vertebrae. In the film, all women’s labour is subsumed as cleaning. From the opening shot, a woman crawls, mopping the parquet in the British Museum around the exhibit of Anning’s early celebrity find, an intact Ichthyosaur. Mary lives with her mother. She too cleans to sublimate the labour of parturition, endlessly bathing and wiping a menagerie of small clay animals — one for each of her children stillborn or lost in infancy.

The confluence of Ammonite’s narrative with Vertigo is striking, both taking place beyond the zenith or their protagonist’s careers, a time of susceptibility. Initially, Mary and Scottie sense danger and resist love. They are aware of their vulnerabilities, signalled by Scottie’s physical and psychic scars, and Mary’s stoic focus on her research activity. The intrusion of wealthy patrons initiates the encounters that burgeon into compelling, irresistible want. The consequences, although unexpected as the scenarios unfold, are coldly predictable. Their noble sponsors, like psychopaths or zombies, devastate Mary and Scottie’s equilibrium.

In her early career, Mary’s intellectual acumen and celebrity appear to have let her straddle social barriers, granting temporary access to alternatives to the heteronormative monogamy that would otherwise have been the sole option for a woman seeking to consolidate status and influence. The movie suggests that domesticated homosexuality was OK among the upper class, just another privilege of status. With things stacked against her, Mary’s bettered circumstances were short-lived; women were not eligible to join the London Geological Society. In a subplot, the glint of a former assignation flashes across the countenance of a local grande-dame. The recognition is met with Mary’s opprobrium. Fossils are no longer the fashion, and Mary’s no longer a ‘catch.’ She would now be advised to embrace her subaltern status, her means, and her ‘great disadvantage.’ She has heeded this good sense until into her slate grey life comes Charlotte, played by Saoirse Ronan, initiating a palette of the palest spring green. She is numb, the grieving wife of an unctuous fossil enthusiast.

Kim Novac as Judy Barton is discovered by John ‘Scottie’ Ferguson (James Stuart) in ‘Vertigo’ (Alfred Hitchcock 1958)

Green is a common motif. In both movies, love-interests wear this colour, repudiating simple ardour, suggesting a rooted plant, or, in Charlotte’s case, clinging lichen. Scottie first sees the woman he believes to be his friend’s wife, Madeleine, dressed in green enveloped in a crimson interior. The red suggests passion but the green the growing subtlety of an amorous spell.

Charlotte wears black in Mary’s initial encounters. She is in mourning for the death of her child. Their fragile empathy originates in Mary’s care for fossils, petrified creatures whose life force was also prematurely extinguished. Mary is contracted to look after the dispirited Charlotte, psychologically maimed by loss. Scottie, too receives a commission to keep an eye on Madeleine. Madeline is possessed by another woman, Carlotta Valdes, who similarly grieves the loss of a child. In both cases, immersion initiates the couples’ intimacies; Madeline, as Carlotta, throws herself into San Francisco Bay, and Charlotte’s misguidedly takes to sea bathing. Her moss coloured swimsuit is her first appearance in greenish clothes. Charlotte’s experience brings on illness, and she convalesces at Mary’s house, now dressed in pure white. She dons a green dress to signal the return of her vitality and the ramping up of the intensity of her relationship with Mary. Madeleine is liveried in green throughout, including her smart vehicle and accessories. As the audience later discovers, her activity and coquettishness were designed to fascinate Scottie. He, thinking he witnessed her suicide, believes that she is reborn in the form of a doppelganger, Judy Barton. When Scottie first sees Judy in the street, her outfit is intensely green, framed between two green parked vehicles. She resides in a hotel suffused with emerald light.

A spiral motif, like a shell, is a feature in Madeline’s hairstyle. Its vortex draws Scottie in. The emblem repeats in both Mary’s hair and Charlotte’s hats. In a parallel scene, Lee’s most direct appropriation from Hitchcock, Mary wears a bonnet fashioned from a coil of maroon cord, wound into a spiral. She is looking at portraits in the British Museum. In the equivalent scene, set in San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honour, Madeline is surveilled by Scottie as she gazes at a portrait of Carlotta. It is a moment of revelation. He makes connections, including between the coiled coiffure of Madeline and that of Carlotta in the painting. Mary stops at a portrait of Charlotte’s husband, among other great men. The presence of these portraits in museums underscores Mary and Scottie’s mismatch with sophistication and finery. The spirals hypnotize. Scottie and Mary renege propriety and judgment — they renege their class.

In both scenarios, class stratification intensifies with pitiless inevitability. As Mary and Charlotte’s love grows, Charlotte is gradually empowered, and Mary seems more innocent and lacking in urbane experience. Around Scottie, a malign plan unfolds, exploiting his guilelessness. The movies indicate the differences between the expansive confidence of entitlement and misplaced trust as a symptom of social limitation.

When Scottie meets Judy, he is dissatisfied. She is a retail assistant, no longer the classy woman of his fantasy. He sets about resurrecting Madeleine, employing Mary’s method, piecing together a fossil from scattered parts. His mistake, which soon initiates tragedy, is believing that he can recreate a model woman with money and integrity, when rank and corruption had previously given her life. Just as deluded as were his investigations, his romantic yearnings for a posh lover are conflicted. Inevitably, he finds his new version of Madeline to be fatally flawed.

He and Mary discover the hard way that love outside your position has consequences. Charlotte intends to install Mary in a suite in her London home. Her husband endorses the arrangement, sensing that it will give his wife vitalizing companionship, and endorse the seriousness of his new preoccupation with paleontology. Finally, feeling deceived, Mary recoils from the situation. In vertigo, the outcomes are more destructive, Judy is sacrificed, and Scottie loses his mind. (the real-life Mary succumbed to breast cancer and died aged 47 shortly after Ammonite’s fictional time frame.)

In vertigo, another important character oversees Scottie’s inconsolable quest, Midge. She is pragmatic when it comes to love. For Scottie, Madeleine is an unapproachable zenith, but he has disdain for Midge’s affection. He adores Madeleine, whose life is aimless. She is a wanderer. Like Mary, Midge is industrious. She has work to do. In Scottie’s eyes, both Midge and Judy’s occupation devastates their status. In the opening scene, Midge is designing undergarments, items connected to corporal support, as well as the artifice of seduction. Scottie reminds her that he is above work, ’a man of independent means.’

Charlotte’s project is to transmogrify Mary’s work, relocating it from the elemental coastline to her London boudoir. Mary’s refusal to participate leads back to the Ichthyosaur specimen in the British Museum. Its rigid permanence equates with Mary’s attitude. A youthful natural scientist’s discovery, promising dazzling prospects, is now a tragic relic of aspiration in a vitrine, utterly separated from real-life conditions.

In the final shot, Charlotte appears through the glass on the opposite side of the museum case. She looks wan and anaemic, like a vampire. It is how she looked when she initially entered Mary’s shop. Mary’s first words to her were curt. As Charlotte examines a box decorated with shells, Mary snaps, ‘could you not fiddle with that.’ Events teach Mary a lesson, do not address your superiors in that way, or you will be owned.

This essay is dedicated to the memory of David William Stooke. He loved movies and seeding love in others.




Andrew Stooke is a nonaffiliated artist, writer, and researcher based in Shanghai and London.

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Andrew Stooke is a nonaffiliated artist, writer, and researcher based in Shanghai and London.

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