Thursday, May 24, 2012

Guest Review: Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, 2002)

It is very exciting to present another guest review on the site. Sam McCosh, whose reviews can be found at her personal site, An Online Universe, has reviewed Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar. Following up from her fantastic debut, Ratcatcher, which I reviewed last week, Ramsay has crafted another powerful masterpiece. Thanks to Sam for the contribution, I hope you all enjoy it. 

Morvern Callar (based on the book of the same name by Alan Warner) stars Samantha Morton as a young Scottish woman who is dealing with the suicide of her aspiring-writer boyfriend. He not only leaves behind gifts and words of wisdom for Morvern, but also money for his funeral and instructions on what to do with his unpublished manuscript for his first novel. After initially being in a state of denial about his death, Morvern submits the book as her own work and takes the money meant for the funeral and heads off on the holiday to Costa del Sol (Northern Spain) with her best friend. The film follows the two girls on their adventures in Spain as we watch their fun, and we see Morvern abandoning the weight of her past and embracing this much more pleasant present, where she can increasingly see endless possibilities for herself.

It is never made clear whether Morvern is suffering from any form of mental illness, but the actions she takes after the death of her boyfriend and while on holiday in Spain would indicate that something is not quite right. Certainly there is a level of eccentricity about her, but this can only account for so much – the same goes for grief and the grieving process; there is a point beyond what is “understandable”. In no world is it okay or normal for her to do the things she does. In this review I’m not willing to state what she does, as it would constitute a major plot spoiler in my eyes. For those who haven’t seen the film, all you need to know is it is heart-breaking, disturbing, and just not right.

While her actions may not be normal, there is something admirable about [parts of] it. We’ve all experienced grief or great sadness at some time in our life, and usually we go straight back to “normality” after a short period of “appropriate” grieving. Morvern just goes for broke and heads off overseas on a new adventure. She abandons reality and embraces all of the experiences available to her – there is a real sense of total freedom. It’s probably (well, almost certainly) not healthy, but it sure does look like a lot of fun. When you compare the beauty and sense of freedom of Spain with the weighty greyness of Scotland, it’s easy to understand why she feels lighter.

Music plays a very important part in this film – it is the glue that binds not only the scenes together, but it’s also the invisible bond which binds Morvern to her dead boyfriend. Their apartment has a lot of music in it and it is clear that it was an important part of their relationship. As part of her Christmas present (that he had planned and left for her to open after his passing), he leaves Morvern a walkman and a mix tape. Morvern plays this tape throughout large parts of the film. Rather than narration or dialogue, we experience much of what Morvern does by hearing the music she is listening to, and seeing her walking, dancing, laughing etc. It’s hard to tell if Morvern really loves the music or if she is using it to hold on to her boyfriend and mask the pain of his death – it is possible that it is both. Music has a way of taking you back to a time or place, and evoking what you were feeling at that time – it is an extremely powerful memory tool.

The cinematography in the film is fantastic, and at times tells as much of the story as the dialogue and actions of the characters do. A couple of party scenes (one in a nightclub) are particularly impressive. In one, Morvern walks through a very crowded nightclub with her headphones on and the music playing from her walkman. While the club-goers are dancing to a different beat around her, Morvern moves through them in her own way – listening to her soundtrack. The long tracking shot of Morvern walking through the club, with the strobe lights flashing and the intense colours dancing across the scene is something special. Prominent use of lighting shows up throughout the film. It’s hard to get the image of those Christmas lights blinking soullessly on and off out of your mind after the film finishes. Overall the film has a very strange beauty about it, which is as mesmerising as Morton’s performance is.

Samantha Morton is outstanding this film, and it is easy to see why she received such universal praise. She manages to balance the energetic and almost fantastical side of her character, with the darker and more thoughtful moments. She is utterly captivating, and despite her character’s questionable choices, you can’t help but fully invest in the outcome of her story.

Does it make a difference that the director/writer was a female? That’s really hard to say. I’m not sure that it does. Yes Morvern is a very strong female character, but she isn’t exactly typically feminine or in fact entirely normal at all. The reason this film (and her character) is so rich and multi-layered [and successful], is due to Ramsey’s obvious strong directorial style and writing talents and not her gender. Her characters are fully fleshed out and imagined, and their stories are told in such a compelling way.

Overall, Morvern Callar is a powerful film that is definitely worth checking out. It explores themes of grief, freedom, memories, and the flow-on affect that one decision can have. This is a film that will stick with you long after the credits roll.

Rating: ★★★★1/2


  1. This is truly one of the great discoveries I've made last year. Definitely opened doors for me about the idea of narrative and character motivations. It inspired me to not dwell on a lot of things as I thank Ramsay for giving me ideas for the screenplay I wrote and completed last year.

    Especially as I finally started writing an essay about this film a few days ago as I hope to have it out next month for my Favorite Films series.

  2. A name-check for some of the music - notably Can's Spoon and I Want More - wouldn't have gone amiss. I'm wondering if you had read Alan Warner's book before seeing the film.

    1. You're right - I could have mentioned some of the tracks/artists. The soundtrack for the film is amazing, and is something I still enjoy listening to. I hadn't (and still have not) read the novel. Unfortunately my 'to read' pile is rather big. I am looking forward to reading it at some point.