In the opening scene of Lynne Ramsay’s sophomore feature, the almost soundless world is bathed in the colourful glow of a Christmas tree. A young woman gently caresses her bare chested lover in what is presumably a post-coital embrace. As the camera moves out, a disorientating scene emerges; a lifeless body (Him, played by Des Hamilton) is surrounded by a pool of blood, Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) is lying on the floor lost in her own thoughts. Across the room a computer monitor glows with the words ‘READ ME’.

“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. A sort of wave of something was going across me. There was fright but I’d day-dreamed how I’d be.” – Opening passage from Morvern Callar1

Published in 1995, Alan Warner’s debut novel Morven Callar was a critical hit and bestseller and won the young novelist the prestigious Somerset Maugham Award. Told in stream of consciousness, it’s the story of a young supermarket stacker who wakes up on Christmas day to discover her boyfriend has killed himself. The computer in their lounge room contains a goodbye note and instructions for her to send his just completed novel to prospective publishers, but in the intervening days Morvern conceives of an alternate future for herself. With a slow but determined deliberation, she presses the delete key on His name and types in two words, Morvern Callar.

Lynne Ramsay grew up in a working-class suburb of Glasgow in the mid 1970’s, a milieu that she drew on for her debut feature Ratcatcher. In a 2011 interview with The Observer she told Sean O’Hagan that her parents belonged to a “certain intellectual working-class movement towards self-improvement and self-empowerment that has all but disappeared with the decline of communities and union power”. 2 Encouraged to follow her artistic pursuits, Ramsay studied photography at Napier College in Edinburgh before attending the National Film and Television School (Beaconsfield) where she trained primarily as a cinematographer and later as a director. Her graduation film, Small Deaths (1996) was selected by the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Prix de Jury (Short Film) as did her follow up short, Gasman (1998). These early films travelled widely and by the time her first feature Ratcatcher (1999) premiered in Un Certain Regard in 2000, Ramsay had earned a reputation as a gifted filmmaker with a strong visual style.

Premiering at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, Morvern Callar garnered the C.I.C.A.E. Award and the Award of the Youth (Foreign Film). On reading the novel, Ramsay was immediately “attracted to (Morvern) because she’s so subversive”. 3 For her first screen adaptation, she collaborated with director and animator, Liana Dognini. “She’s (Dognini) quite analytical and I’m quite intuitive, so we really pushed each other”, said Ramsay. 4 “It was an arduous task, trying to distil the essence of a book that reads as one long existential monologue in which (Morvern) never attempts to explain her motivation.” 5 Ramsay and Dognini stayed true to Warner’s text while making changes such as altering the ending and foregoing Morven’s direct narration. Instead they used music as an essential device for their heroine’s journey. “In the book, Morvern has tapes that are made up already; it’s not something he leaves her as a present that was a new invention. I felt the tape was like a letter to her. The music’s great because it’s part of the narrative.” 6

Soon after finding her boyfriend’s corpse, Morvern sets about opening a collection of presents from Him. A gold lighter, a leather jacket, a Walkman and a posthumous mix-tape containing a wonderfully eclectic array of sounds including Stereolab, Can, Aphex Twin, Broadcast, Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. As Morvern moves through the world, these sounds offer a distinct atmosphere and narrative propulsion. Later, in one of the film’s most memorable set-pieces, Morvern enters the frame, aviator glasses on and Walkman gaffer-taped to her semi-naked body. As she takes gulps from a brandy balloon, The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You” blasts in her headphones and she gets to work disposing of Him.

“I liked this idea of a female wanderer; you don’t get many female characters like that. In some way she felt like one of those intriguing characters in a western where you don’t get to the bottom of that sorrow.”7

So much of Morvern Callar rests on the sublime performance by British actor Samantha Morton8 whose portrayal of this complex and unknowable character is a masterclass in film acting. Her wide blue eyes contain endless secrets and sorrows; at any moment Morton’s face carries the full weight of grief and seconds later, contorts into an impish cheeky grin. In another departure from the novel, Ramsay had Morton play the role with her natural English accent. This slight but crucial distinction offers another layer of complexity to the filmic Morvern; as a young woman already far from home and therefore set on a journey of reinvention.

Known for her use of non-professional actors, Lynne Ramsay cast Glaswegian hairdresser Kathleen McDermott as Morvern’s best friend Lanna. “I thought it was an interesting combination, because Sam (Morton) is quite controlled and Kathleen is very spontaneous. She also has a lightness to her — quick, funny — and she becomes Sam’s balance.”9 Long before Lena Dunham’s Girls hit the screen in 2012, Morton and McDermott presented a compelling rendering of the complexities of young women in search of themselves.

Morvern Callar: Fuck work Lanna, we can go anywhere you like.

Lanna: I’m happy here.

Morvern Callar: Are ya?

Lanna: Yeah, everyone I know is here. There’s nothing wrong with here. It’s the same crapness everywhere, so stop dreaming.

Some fourteen years after its release, Morvern Callar continues to offer an intriguing vision of youth and female resilience. Morton and Ramsay’s interpretation of the novel allows the audience to revel in her beguiling nature but not dwell on the morality of her motivations. The film ends as it began, with a visually stunning and dreamlike sequence – this time brimming with sound.

 

Morvern Callar (2002 United Kingdom 97 mins)

Prod Co: Company Pictures Prod: Robyn Slovo, Charles Pattinson and George Faber Dir: Lynne Ramsay Scr: Liana Dognini and Lynne Ramsay Phot: Alwin H. Küchler Ed: Lucia Zucchetti Art Dir: Philip Barber and James David Goldmark

Cast: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott, Paul Popplewell, Bryan Dick

 

Endnotes

  1. Alan Warner, Morvern Callar (Anchor Books, 1995,) p. 13.
  2. Sean O’Hagan, “Lynne Ramsay: ‘Just talk to me straight,” The Observer, 2 October 2011.
  3. Lynne Ramsay, “From Oban to Cannes,” The Observer, 6 October 2002.
  4. Adam Hart, “Ordinary People With An Edge; Lynne Ramsay on Morvern Callar,” Indiewire, 3 January, 2003.
  5. Lynne Ramsay, “From Oban to Cannes,” The Observer, 6 October 2002.
  6. Geoff Andrew, “Lynne Ramsay” Guardian Interviews at the BFI, 29 October, 2002.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Morton has also appeared in Sweet and Lowdown (Woody Allen, 1999), Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002) and Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007).
  9. Adam Hart, “Ordinary People With An Edge; Lynne Ramsay on Morvern Callar,” Indiewire, 3 January, 2003.

About The Author

Kristy Matheson has worked in independent film distribution and held positions at the Brisbane International Film Festival and the Sydney Film Festival. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne where she programs contemporary films and retrospectives. Previous programs include Je t'aime: The Filmic Lives of Gainsbourg and Birkin, Nocturnal Transmissions: The Cinema of Guy Maddin, Dark Rooms and Dreamscapes: Peter Tscherkassky and Eve Heller plus seasons on Zhang Yimou, Agnès Varda, Shirley Clarke, and Pedro Almodover.