Morvern Callar



UK 2002 : Lynne Ramsay : 97 mins

Apparently numbed with grief following the suicide of her boyfriend James, 21-year-old Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) reacts by drowning her sorrows with best-pal Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) in the bars of Oban, the chilly Scottish coastal town where the pair work in a supermarket. Following James’s suicide-note urgings to ‘be brave,’ Morvern cuts up his body in their bath and buries the pieces on a remote hilltop. She then spends the money he’d earmarked for funeral expenses on a Spanish holiday with Lanna, and before leaving sends off James’s manuscript to a London publishing firm under her own name. This results in another cash windfall, and it seems that Morvern’s journeys may only just be beginning.

For more than an hour, Morvern Callar is quite simply the year’s best film: a magical, stunningly audacious character study of a title character played in strikingly ambiguous fashion by Samantha Morton. Only marginally more ‘with it’ than her amniotic precog Agatha from Minority Report, Morton’s Morvern is a disconnected semi-presence, sometimes apparently down-to-earth, sometimes virtually extra-terrestrial as she ambles through life.

From the opening fade-in as she ‘comes to’ next to James’s cold body on their kitchen floor, Morvern goes through a series of reawakenings that bring her into progressively sharper focus – up to a point. It’s as if we’re watching her character take form before our eyes. And she is a ‘character’, the heroine of her own internal movie – before slitting his wrists, James thoughtfully leaves some Christmas presents: in effect, Morvern’s costumes, props and soundtrack.

And it’s a soundtrack which we’re thankfully allowed to share: in the most dazzling sequence, Morvern walks down a supermarket aisle in beatific slow-motion to the strains of Lee Hazlewood’s ‘One Velvet Morning.’ Ramsay films her moon-face from below to stirring memories of Carl Dreyer’s silent classic Passion de Jeanne d’Arc– a modern-day Falconetti among the fruit and veg (when Morvern and Lanna enter their local bar, a pool-player says “OK boys, this time we’ll play for Joan of Arc.”)

Ramsay’s pitch-perfect direction transfigures these mundane details of Morvern’s life, just as the character herself is developing a strong, sensual awareness of the lights, colours, textures and sounds, the flora and fauna of her various environments. Crucially, there’s enough humour in Ramsay and Morton’s contributions to prevent Morvern Callar from taking itself too seriously. Ramsay’s script, adapted with Lianna Dognini from Alan Warner’s novel, treads a fine line between alluring ambiguity and self-indulgent art-movie pretentiousness, but the director’s brilliant technique keeps her firmly on the right side of the divide.

But then, with less than half an hour to go, the spell abruptly breaks. After a passionate encounter with an unnamed fellow tourist (Rafe Patrick Burchell), Morvern has the latest in her series of re-awakenings, and persuades Lanna to accompany her on an impulsive journey inland. As they get into their taxi, cinematographer Alwin Kuchler jarringly switches to a different film-stock – replacing the earlier muted tones with conspicuously harsher, sharper colours.

As the pair literally lose their way in the tourist-unfriendly Spanish hinterland, so does Ramsay – perhaps it’s no coincidence that a similar sudden downturn afflicts Dominik Graf’s German variation on similar themes, the Corsica-set Der Felsen. The magic of the first hour vanishes as suddenly as the flicking of a switch, and the remaining scenes have a disappointingly perfunctory, aimless feel, petering out to a limp non-ending that’s virtually identical to the equally unsatisfactory conclusion of Ghost World.

The film only partially regains its stride with an ambiguous coda in which Morvern walks around a dark dancefloor, her face strobing in and out of view to the sound of The Mamas and the Papas’ “Dedicated to the One I Love.” But this really is too little, too late. Perhaps Ramsay – making only her second feature after several award-winning shorts – isn’t yet capable of sustaining her remarkable talents over the running-time of a feature film. Or perhaps it’s just that Warner’s novel, with its sustained interior monologue, really is as unfilmable as its readers claim.

26th October, 2002
(seen Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 23rd October. First seen 23rd August)

This film was also shown at the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here for all the festival reviews.

by Neil Young
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