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Morvern Callar
cast: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott, and Lynne McGuire

director: Lynne Ramsay

93 minutes (15) 2002 widescreen ratio 16:9
Momentum DVD Region 2 retail
Also available to buy on video

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Tom Matic
Her face bathed fitfully in the flashing Christmas tree lights, a close up of a young woman caresses what appears to be her sleeping lover. A longer shot reveals that he is lying face down in a doorway of the flat's kitchen, not far from a smear of blood. Another shot shows the other light source in the otherwise darkened room. It is a flickering PC monitor displaying the words: 'read me'. Eventually the woman rises from her boyfriend's corpse, and reads his eerily ephemeral suicide note. Next we see her huddled alone at a railway station, answering a payphone and saying her name, "Morvern Callar - that's M.O.R.V -" Thus begins Lynne Ramsay's mesmerising, haunting and darkly sardonic adaptation of Alan Warner's novel Morvern Callar. These disturbing opening shots represent an example of how the camerawork plays subtle tricks with our expectations, in a film that subverts our expectations about how people should respond to bereavement.
   It sounds like a depressing opening for a film, but things aren't all bad for Morvern (Samantha Morton). After a Hogmanay bender with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), she returns to the flat she's left exactly as it was. As she scrolls down the suicide note, she discovers that he has left her his bank details, a tape of experimental art rock and, best of all, a complete novel together with a list of publishers. The flashing cursor highlights the transience of literature in the computer age, as she hesitantly deletes his name and replaces it with her own.
   Morvern uses the money to take Lanna to a Balearic resort, full of 18-30 types and brain-dead ravers. Morvern and Lanna's friendship is an uncomfortable mixture of physical intimacy and emotional distance, and the holiday sees them going their separate ways after a chaotic road trip leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere. This experience is a revelation to nature-loving Morvern, but her more thrill-seeking companion, who is by now coming down from an ecstasy tablet, is less than impressed. At the same time, the seemingly impossible occurs: the first publishing firm on her boyfriend's list want to fly to Spain to talk to Morvern about 'her' novel!
   Ramsay's adaptation shortens the novel, and in the process makes Morvern a more rootless and isolated figure. In fact, if you haven't read the novel, you may find it hard fully to understand the motives for some of Morvern's more extreme actions. As a result, where the novel gives her progress from shelf stacker to impostor-novelist a perverse logic, grounded in the gritty reality of her everyday existence, the film seems more disjointed in its treatment of this physical and psychological journey. Perhaps this is intentional on the director's part. After all, the use of soundtrack and camera angles emphasises the alienation of the film's central character. When we see Morvern arriving at work in the supermarket, the camera is shooting her from below, so we can only see the ceiling. The eerie easy-listening track blaring out reinforces the resulting impression of a vast ice cathedral. Then we see the headphones, and realise that the supermarket muzak was in fact the personal soundtrack that Morvern uses to insulate herself from the mundane tasks she undertakes to survive (whether that's picking slugs out of carrots, or hacking up her dead boyfriend's body). This personal soundtrack is also much of the film's soundtrack, so that we are invited to share Morvern's private world.
   Ramsay's direction makes vivid use of contrasts. We are taken from the funereal quietness of Morvern's flat and the deserted railway station she haunts, to the sociable buzz of a Hogmanay night out. This escalates to the frenzied, hysterical debauchery of a druggy house party, but even here there is a quiet moment, as the solitary figure of Morvern is picked out by a coastguard's searchlight on the shore. Later the almost perpetual wintry darkness of the Scottish coastal town gives way to the dazzling sun-bleached resort, followed by the heightening and exaggerated glowing colours that give the road trip its heady, exhilarating character.
   Much of the success of Morvern Callar can be attributed to Morton's performance in the title role. It's not just that she has a gift for staring into space with enigmatic intensity. Her lines are sparse and low-key, but she conveys so much without words, a complex mixture of sensuality and remoteness, of pantheistic mysticism and amoral indifference. Though a sense of loss is not altogether absent from her reaction to her boyfriend's death, it undeniably gives her a new lease of life, as well as a new source of income; and her detachment from Lanna further allows her to explore autonomy. With this tendency to regard those close to her as an annoying encumbrance to her personal self-realisation, such a character could easily come across as unattractive. But her na�ve yet worldly reaction to the publishers, as they patronise the eager young ingénue, cannot fail to endear her to the audience.
   In short, the combination of Morton's performance and Ramsay's direction make Morvern Callar a hallucinatory experience.
   DVD extras: theatrical trailer.
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