Samantha Morton gives a bravura performance in Morvern Callar, the second feature from writer-director Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher).The film opens with 21-year old Morvern (Morton) wrapped around the corpse of her lover. The only illumination in the sparsely furnished room comes from the Christmas tree’s lights and a computer monitor, “Read Me” emblazoned across the screen. Her boyfriend has completed his first novel and, in a presumed fit of artistic angst, slashed his wrists on the living room floor.
He’s left Morvern £300 in his bank account and instructions to print out the novel and mail it to a publisher. With the money, Morvern invites best mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) on a two-week jaunt to a Spanish resort. She prints the novel, but not before deleting her boyfriend’s name and - with obvious trepidation - replacing it with her own.
Morton’s in virtually every scene of Morvern Callar, and it’s near impossible to take your eyes off her. Ramsay and co-writer Liana Dognini, adapting a novel by Alan Warner, determinedly avoid taking the easy road. There is no banal voiceover to clue us into Morvern’s motivations and feelings. The character’s taciturnity doesn’t matter because Morton, with her wide and staring eyes, conveys all we need to know through her performance.
Appropriating her dead lover’s life work is a morally alienating action for any character. It’s to Morton’s credit that she makes it believably pragmatic, so you don’t instantly disengage from Morvern or her predicament. Non-professional Kathleen McDermott contributes a lovely, lively debut performance as the bubbly Lanna, who personifies the film’s themes of friendship and home.
Ramsay takes an impressionistic approach to the story. Image and music play as strong a role as dialogue. Morvern and Lanna are from the isolated Scottish coastal town of Oban. Both work in the local supermarket and their prospects seem as bleak as the wintry weather. Ramsay and her director of photography, Alwin Kuchler, create a vivid visual contrast between the grey of Scotland and the open spaces and white light of Almeria in southern Spain. It’s in Spain that Morvern is liberated from grief by her adventures.
The carefully chosen soundtrack includes artists mentioned in the novel (like Can) and swings from Stereolab to The Velvet Underground to The Mamas and The Papas (“Dedicated to the One I Love”). Music is strongly featured because we’re tuned into Morvern’s Walkman, constantly affixed to her ears. She’s broadcasting cassettes bequeathed to her by her dead boyfriend, a soundtrack for her personal odyssey.Ramsay describes the film as a “black fairytale” which goes some way to capturing its mixed tone of melancholy and wonder and cautious optimism. Morvern Callar is bleak and occasionally slow, but it’s also a striking and compelling achievement.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2003 Brisbane Film Festival. For more in the 2003 Brisbane Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 CineVegas Film Festival For more in the 2005 CineVegas Film Festival series, click here.