RETRO REVIEW: Morvern Callar (2002)

Release Poster – Alliance Atlantis / BBC Films

The following is a retro review of Morvern Callar — Directed by Lynne Ramsay.

A funny thing happened a couple of months ago. In March 2018, I saw Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here in a small theater that, honestly, looked more like a little kiosk. It was the first Lynne Ramsay film that I had ever seen, and, when the film was over and I got out of the empty movie theater room, I realized that I had just watched a film by someone who had a great understanding of the medium. 

I loved You Were Never Really Here. I loved writing about You Were Never Really Here. So, when I had had time to process the full weight of the film, I decided that I would make my way back through Lynne Ramsay’s filmography until I had watched all of her films. I saw We Need To Talk About Kevin, which I thought was brilliant, and it only made me more curious about this excellent filmmaker. Although I wasn’t immediately compelled to write a review of We Need To Talk About Kevin, I had a different experience watching Ramsay’s drama film from 2002.

As I work my way back through Lynne Ramsay’s filmography due to my reaction to You Were Never Really Here, I now reach Morvern Callar. Although not as accessible or intelligible as her later works — We Need To Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here — this is another underappreciated Lynne Ramsay stunner. She hasn’t just become my favorite female filmmaker, she has become one of my favorite filmmakers, male or female.

Her film Morvern Callar begins in an apartment in Scotland, where the titular character (played by Samantha Morton) has found her boyfriend lying down, face-first, lifeless on the floor. Her boyfriend has died by suicide, and he has made a few requests, which are specified on his computer. He has left her his suicide note, a mix-tape for her, and, in his suicide note, he has requested that Morvern would send the manuscript to his completed but unfinished novel to publishers.

Overwhelmed with confusion, grief, and frustration, Morvern does not follow his requests. She deletes his name from the manuscript, writes her own, and sends it to publishers. She also empties his bank account and takes an impromptu vacation to Spain with her friend, Lanna (played by Kathleen McDermott), thus ignoring the responsibility that had been thrust upon her.

This is not a straightforward film that will be easy to decode for all audiences. It opens with a character staring intently at the ring on her finger, while her boyfriend is dead on the floor, and then it thrusts you into attempts to numb what feelings may spring out of such an event. But nothing is over-explained, and the filmmaker trusts you to put two and two together, even though the cinematic equation may not be that simple.

The raw and unpolished impromptu road drama film Morvern Callar rests on the shoulders of its impeccable leading lady, Samantha Morton, who, in portraying the titular character, embodies the potential wild turbulence of shock at a crossroads. There is grief, hopelessness, bewilderment, anger, and negligence in the character, and somehow the performance speaks to these emotions and traits in the silence of the camera resting on a multifaceted character expression.

Morton’s bare face speaks louder than words, and the film only works if you connect with the central performance. If you don’t manage to read what Morton is working through in this unprocessed acting showcase, so much is dropped in the floor, which isn’t to say that it is incomprehensible, but that it doesn’t hold your hand for the duration of the film’s slim plot.

Morvern Callar is an, at times, enigmatic, road movie fueled by its soundtrack, its memorable lead performance, and a fascinating premise. Whereas some of Ramsay’s later works have been more marketable and easy to process, Morvern Callar is a different beast altogether. Ramsay’s artistry shines through in what may not be her best film, but what certainly is a confident attempt to show a troubled woman dealing with feelings she has trouble numbing or tending to.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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