Dir: Lynne Ramsay. UK. 2002. 97mins. Screened in Director's Fortnight
A mesmerising journey through the hidden depths of a woman's soul, Morvern Callar confirms writer-director Lynne Ramsay as one of the most audacious and uncompromising British filmmakers of her generation. Poetic, stunningly beautifully and untainted by crass commercial concerns, it is as serious and demanding an expression of pure art as a Carl Dreyer film or a Camus novel. Likely to be warmly embraced by a critical fraternity eager to champion a new standard bearer for British arthouse cinema, its commercial potential is an entirely different matter. Ramsay's reputation and the growing international profile of Samantha Morton should make it essential viewing for some - but any mainstream, breakout appeal is dubious.
The first time that Ramsay has not worked directly from her own experiences, Morvern Callar is largely faithful to the acclaimed 1995 Alan Warner novel that Ramsay and Liana Dognini have adapted. It also has a remarkable affinity with some of the themes and preoccupations of Ramsay's prize-winning shorts and first feature Ratcatcher (1999), notably the notion of someone escaping from the uncomfortable realities of their current life and moving on to the possibilities of fresh, new horizons.
Living in the wintry West of Scotland, Morvern works at a local supermarket. She awakens one Christmas morning to find her boyfriend lying dead on the kitchen floor. Flashing Christmas tree lights illuminate his body. Rather than phoning the police, she calmly opens her presents, puts on her new jacket and goes on with her life. The boyfriend is neither missed nor mourned and she tells people that he has left her and heads out for a night on the town with her best friend Lanna (McDermott). Later, she reads the suicide note on his computer and attaches her name to the manuscript he has bequeathed her before sending it off to a publisher. It is a measure of Morton's compelling performance and Ramsay's confidence in her material that we do not judge Morvern's actions at this stage. She is sufficiently intriguing a character that we always want to know what happens next.
In a moment of grisly humour that wouldn't seem out of place in American Psycho, Morvern then chops up the body whilst waiting for a pizza to heat and subsequently disposes of the remains. Armed with the boyfriend's credit card, she books a holiday in Spain for herself and Lanna and the film shifts from the icy blues, dank interiors and rugged landscapes of Scotland to the sun-scorched, open plains of Spain. Lanna opts for sun, sex and sangria but Morvern is more reserved, more caught up in her own little world and the further she removes herself from the tourist hotels and rave clubs to the real Spain, the more focused and connected she becomes. A fabulously generous offer for the novel comes as the final confirmation that the boyfriend's death and legacy has been an incredible gift that will allow her to travel far beyond Scotland and the mundane, mindnumbing days of her past.
Bravely refusing the use of voice-over narration as a means to spoon-feed the audience, Ramsay allows us to enter Morvern's world entirely through the performance of Samantha Morton and her reactions to the events around her. Wandering around dazed and confused through wild times and horrific events, her glazed eyes, inscrutable features and calm control suggest a Stepford Wife who has deliberately detached herself from the cares of an indifferent world.
Music becomes a vital key to establishing her character. A Walkman insulates her and the choice of music is often a potent counterpoint to what appears on screen. Gradually thawing over the course of the film, Morton is always alive to the specific mood of the moment and suggests Movern's vulnerability as well as her pragmatism and increasing determination. It is a performance every bit as accomplished as her work in Under The Skin or Sweet And Lowdown.
A trainee barber plucked from the streets of Glasgow, newcomer Kathleen McDermott is extremely natural and unaffected as Morven's loyal pal Lanna and the changing nature of their friendship lends added warmth to the film. Whether utilising the immediacy of a hand-held camera or evoking the sun-scorched brightness of Spain, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler brilliantly serves Ramsay's singular vision. If only the film had been in Official Competition their collaboration and Morton's performance would have commanded the attention of the Jury.
Prod co: Company Pictures
Int'l sales: Alliance Atlantis
Prod: Robyn Slovo,Charles Pattinson, George Faber
Exec prods: David M Thompson, Barbara McKissack, Andras Hamori, Seaton McLean
Scr: Ramsay, Liana Dognini from the novel by Alan Warner
Cinematography: Alwin Kuchler
Prod des: Jane Morton
Ed: Lucia Zucchetti
Music: Andrew Cannon
Main cast: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott,Raife Patrick Burchell, Jim Wilson, Dan Cadan