Morvern Callar Review
Adapted from the book by Alan Warner, which tells the story of a young girl in the first person who creeps further into herself as the novel progresses, Morvern Callar was to be director Lynne Ramsay's debut feature but when she failed to secure sufficient funds, she worked on Ratcatcher instead. Second time around, Ramsay took her chance and has produced a quite remarkable film, not only in terms of the subject matter and the manner in which it is structured but in the way it has been filmed, containing, as it does, some of the most arresting imagery made available on DVD this year.
Morvern Callar (Morton) is a woman in her early-twenties living in a remote coastal town in the Scottish Highlands. It is winter as the film opens, off-season, and the town is deserted but for the locals who work on the fishing boats and the women who support them. One morning near Christmas, Morvern wakes to find that her boyfriend lying dead on their kitchen floor with a small amount of blood around him. As she lies beside him, his suicide note flickers on the computer screen and the lights on the Christmas tree blink on and off.
The opening lines of the novel on which this film is based are the best indication of Morvern Callar's character, "He'd cut His throat with the knife. He'd near chopped off His hand with the meat cleaver. He couldn't object so I lit a Silk Cut." Within those three sentences, Morvern offers a summary of her separation from those around her, sitting in her living room and smoking a cigarette as her boyfriend's body cools beside her. The next two sentences break what little connection Morvern has to the reality of events around her, "A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was a fright but I'd daydreamed how I'd be." In portraying the events that surround herself as a dream, Morvern either reinforces what the reader can't know - that she always felt this distance from others - or the thread that kept her close by had snapped at the same moment her boyfriend cut his wrists.
This film adaptation opens without a voiceover reading this paragraph from the novel. Here, Morvern lies beside her boyfriend's body for a shade under ten minutes, all of which are silent but for the noise of the traffic outside and of Morvern padding around her flat. The images of their bodies are held for up to a minute at a time, lit by the orange glow from the street lamps outside her window and from the occasional blink from the Christmas tree lights. When the audio track does rattle into life, it is to the amplified sound of burning tobacco and the tearing of Morvern opening her Christmas presents early, receiving a leather jacket, a cigarette lighter and C90 mix-tape that will soundtrack the rest of the film. Leaving her flat for the empty and bitterly cold streets of the town in which she lives, Morvern meets Lanna, downs a swig of vodka and a pill and heads off to a local pub and on to a party in the country where the snows falls on their faces as two girls dance topless around a bonfire. Disappearing from the party, Morvern stands on the shore watching a ship return from a fishing trip, the captain of which illuminates Morvern's lonely figure by the light of his torch. To welcome him home, Morvern hoists her skirt above her waist and holds it there until the ship passes. When it does, she looks out onto the island where her stepmother is buried and, extinguishing her cigarette, returns to the party.
Soon after, Morvern disposes of her boyfriend's body, firstly by cutting him up in her bathroom and then burying him in the mountains in a sequence that is beautifully filmed, showing the relationship between Morvern and the earth as she sinks her fingers between the worms, beetles and the mud on the banks of a river. Following her posting of her boyfriend's manuscript to the publisher, Morvern and Lanna leave for Spain, where the blue/grey palette of the early Scottish scenes are replaced by the dusty, rich colours of southern Spain. Morvern drifts along in the back of a taxi as Lanna sleeps beside her and the two of them leave behind the drunken excesses of the Club 18-30 resort in which they first stay for a remote mountaintop village, where the arrival of the taxi in which are travelling clashes with a religious festival. As Morvern once left her boyfriend in the mountains of Scotland, she now leaves Lanna in the mountains of Spain to bring some structure to her life.
Samantha Morton, who brings luminous quality to Morvern's early, drab surroundings, works hard to prevent any interpretation of the film but, in all honesty, this reviewer is unsure if it matters at all. At times, Morvern Callar could be thought of as a series of impressions of youth culture as disconnected to one another as its heroine is to those around her. By choosing to maintain a largely formless structure throughout, Lynne Ramsay has produced what could be thought of as a visual poem for a generation of weekenders, dragging imagery and events into a film that looks dazzling but says very little.
Then again, Morvern Callar could also appear to be about the separation between the hedonistic lifestyle as enjoyed by Morvern's peers, including Lanna, and Morvern herself who is drawn away from her friends by her much older boyfriend. In much the same way as Quadrophenia's Jimmy discovered that a series of seemingly disparate events combined to drag him out of his youth and into adulthood, Morvern Callar finds that in ridding herself of her boyfriend, she assumes his position within the lives of her friends, looking in at their actions with a fair amount of disapproval - shown to best effect in her squinting at Lanna being bluntly propositioned by two British lads in the female toilets in a Spanish bar as an unnamed girl, having taken Ecstasy, fades in and out of consciousness. That Morvern's relationship with Lanna finally breaks down in a mountaintop village in which their taxi (representing Lanna's youth) drives into the middle of a religious festival (representing Morvern's increasing maturity) is not entirely surprising and would seem to back up this interpretation.
It is likely, however, that every viewer will take something slightly different away from Morvern Callar and that these two views on the film will be joined by a host of others. In watching it a number of times, one could either read or impose a meaning upon the film or simply relax and let the astonishing visuals wash over one's eyes. Either way, this is a remarkable film and being incapable of saying whether it is for each viewer or not, one can only recommend that it is viewed before your mind is completely made up. Either way, you'll discover a great example of recent British filmmaking, which shows that Lynne Ramsay is an outstanding talent and if her future films are better than this then they will be very special indeed.
Morvern Callar has been anamorphically transferred in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks absolutely wonderful. Ramsay has presented the film sympathetically, using film stock and techniques to accurately capture Morvern's emotional state and her surroundings. From the chill of the early scenes set in the freezing-cold port to the sunlit hills of Spain in which Morvern abandons Lanna, Morvern Callar is frequently beautiful to look at and the DVD transfer captures this without blemish - the bitrate is high throughout and aside from the occasional fading of colour, due to the manner in which Morvern Callar was filmed rather than the transfer, this deserves full marks.
Matching the outstanding picture quality, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix is stunning, using the rear speakers to bring the viewer into the hearing exactly what Morvern hears. Therefore, in those scenes set within the Spanish nightclubs or when Morvern listens to the cassette left to her by her boyfriend on her Walkman, the soundtrack brings the music into the centre of the room, flickering off to the front or rear speakers as Morvern leaves the club or removes her headphones. The effect is admittedly very simple but done so well that it puts many higher-profile features to shame.
Morvern Callar has been transferred with only a single extra:
Theatrical Trailer (2m21s, 1.85:1 Anamorphic, 2.0 Stereo): This is a typical trailer, being nothing more than a collection of highlights from scenes throughout the film. Little is given away but, similarly, there is nothing of any real or lasting impact and, when compared to the film it purports to advertise, this is a considerable disappointment.
I liked Morvern Callar. In fact, I liked it a lot and would recommend it without hesitation. It truly is a dazzling film and not only for its striking use of imagery and sound but for the openness of the entire film, allowing each viewer to take something unique from it. It reminded this reviewer of nothing so much as Anne Michael's wonderful novel, Fugitive Pieces, which is structured as a novel but written with such care that it is closer to poetry than prose and out of which certain phrases and passages continue to haunt the reader long after the book is finished. Lynne Ramsey has directed a film that may have meaning or it may not. Morvern Callar may be little more than an exercise in linking breathtaking visuals with a story line that is all but absent or it may not. Either way, the fact that one viewer may see something in this film that others won't is quite enough to hang a recommendation on. You may love Morvern Callar or you may hate it but, after all, feeling something, as Morvern proves time and again within this film, is better than feeling nothing at all.