Lynne Ramsay’s Morvern Callar is a film that is quite unexpected and unusual, this isn’t a criticism of the film but rather praise. The film is an intriguing, daring and challenging piece. All too often films fail to be one of these aspects, so for Morvern Callar to be all three was a real delight. Based on Alan Warner’s 1995 novel of the same name. Ramsay manages to weave an interesting narrative based around a in-depth character study of this young woman, who seems unhinged from the rest of society and seems to be in her own world, and acting on her own impulses. The narrative centres around the theme of escape, but mostly it’s a showcase for Samantha Morton’s trancelike performance as Morvern, a woman who remains unfazed by the world around her.
Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) is a young woman in a small port town in Scotland. She wakes on Christmas morning to discover that her boyfriend has killed himself, leaving a suicide note, mix tape and the manuscript of his unpublished novel behind. His novel is dedicated to her and she decides to erase his name and puts her own name on the novel and sends it to the publisher recommended by her boyfriend. Burying him in secret, she uses the money to get out of Scotland, along with her best friend Lanna, for a
trip to the south of Spain — with the possibility of a more extended vacation. Soon-to-be-fatal differences arise between the two friends. Morvern discovers the publishers loved the novel, finding it a work of near-genius. The film begins with an unsettling stillness which, after the titular character’s face is lit up intermittently by a disconcerting red glow, abruptly reveals that she is lying motionless with her recently deceased spouse. This immersive opening is a haunting example of the director’s highly original visual style, she hones in on individual details as opposed to crafting elaborate concoctions of image and sound.
As Morvern, Samantha Morton gives a hypnotic, and charismatic performance, perfectly conveying her character’s bizarre behaviour. She goes partying, clubbing, doing E, and then heads off to Spain while her boyfriend lies dead. Perhaps she is in shock and is struggling to process the event that has taken place. She is maybe heading for a breakdown which would explain her shift in mood, from being quiet and withdrawn to being hyperactive and excitable. Or is she actually emerging from a lifelong breakdown, liberated by her boyfriend’s death? Is Morvern Callar a vulnerable innocent, or a cold, sociopathic opportunist? Her actions are never explained, and Ramsay leaves it to the viewer to come to their own conclusions. The viewer anticipates that Morvern will some how have an epiphany and will learn a lesson so she grows as a person. However, Ramsay isn’t interested in this clichéd character arc, as people don’t always change for the better and they don’t always learn right from wrong. Life is complicated and messy, Ramsay knows this and doesn’t shy away from the truth.
Ramsay is a very visual director, believing in the concept of show, don’t tell. It isn’t necessary for there to be voice over narration or flashbacks to Morvern’s childhood. None of that is needed, Ramsay’s film is all about being in the present and being aware of our surroundings. There are some surreal but stunning visual moments of pure cinema. The viewer sees Morvern cuddles up to the corpse, lit intermittently by flashing Christmas tree lights, a somewhat dreamlike image and one that should be morbid but is presented in an oddly beautiful fashion. There are other moments of surreal beauty, for example, when Morvern appears back in the flat, hunched over in the bath in a foetal position, her face for once turned away from the camera. Morvern appears as her most vulnerable here They are moments which capture the subtle beauty of the everyday.
Ramsay is a master of certain cinematic tricks, which she uses with more skill than discretion: frequent cutting (both within and between scenes) and the use of fragmentary, non-explanatory dialogue. She succeeds in conveying a sense of alienation and a semi-documentary feel in a similar fashion as she did with Racatcher. Ramsay has an eye for capturing even the smallest of details. It is worth mentioning that she was a photographer before she got into film school, and her film work often seems more akin to certain strands of British photography and painting than to anything else going on in cinema. She is an atmospheric director, and a masterful one at that. It is also worth mentioning Alwin Kuchler’s beautiful cinematography, and perhaps especially Paul Davies’ outstanding sound design, are all of the very highest calibre, and an inspired fit with the fierce seriousness of Ramsay’s vision and Morton’s terrific performance.
When asked about the characters of Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar, and why she was attracted to them, Ramsay replied with the following ”I love these characters — the outsider kind of characters — and sometimes they’re not always likeable. Morvern’s an ordinary girl who does something quite extraordinary. They have an edge, James [the hero of “Ratcatcher”] and Morvern. I think that there’s a feeling of escape, of escaping a kind of banality.” Ramsay manages to capture what it is like to be an outsider living on the edge and she manages to keep the viewer interested in two difficult characters which have questionable motives.