Morvern Callar

(Lynne Ramsay, UK, 2003)


This second film by the immensely talented Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) – one of the few hopes for British cinema today – grips from the start, with its glimpses of Morvern (Samantha Morton) casually waking up beside the corpse of her boyfriend.

For a while, we simply follow this Scottish woman through her strangely affectless, post-trauma days. She is an anti-heroine in the Michelangelo Antonioni tradition, living for the moment rather than in her conscience.

Finally, Morvern makes a few bold moves – substituting her name as the author on her boyfriend's book manuscript, and jetting off for hilarious nights of dissipation in Spain with her odd best friend (Kathleen McDermott). Her inner motivations become no clearer to us, or presumably even to her.

But that is the point, because the film delves into the mystery of identity – whether there is actually a true, authentic, inner self to speak of.

A remarkable sequence sums up the powerful qualities of this movie. Morvern has a chance encounter with a strange man who has just suffered a personal tragedy. Their lives briefly collide and they engage in intense sex. Both seem moved by this experience, but in ways we cannot quite read – and they certainly do not talk to each other about it. As suddenly as they met, they separate.

This is a work of textures and sensations rather than plot. Intriguing questions such as why the boyfriend killed himself are given short shrift by Ramsay. Her artistry (which is considerable) is wholly devoted to working on effects of colour, movement, blur, and surprising, often richly sensual fusions of image and sound.

Morton is riveting in an extremely difficult, non-psychological role. No two views of her face seem alike, and occasionally she emits the aura of an alien from outer space. This association suits the film well, since it is, on many levels, about a loss of identity, and the consequent adoption of behaviour that does not seem entirely human.

Morvern moves through the world acting on only a handful of impulses – for money, sex, anonymity – and is accompanied at all times by a soundtrack that pumps a collage including Velvet Underground, Can and The Mamas and The Papas into the synapses of her brain.

At its best, Morvern Callar is right up there alongside the finest work of Wong Kar-wai or Philippe Grandrieux. It is certainly head and shoulders above a film it clearly influenced, Cate Shortland's Somersault (2004). And whenever it starts to look like a chic television commercial or descend into cliché (Morvern in a bathtub, Morvern hanging out a moving car), it instantly recovers and re-finds its uniquely unsettling, haunting tone.

MORE Ramsay: We Need to Talk About Kevin

© Adrian Martin August 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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