TORONTO 2002 REVIEW: Lush, Ambitious, and Plotless; Ramsay's "Morvern Callar"
by Peter Brunette
(09.10.02: indieWIRE) -- Despite appearances, cinema is not a perfect aesthetic medium. One thing it's never been very good at, for example, is conveying interior psychological or emotional states, especially nuanced ones. This hard but old truth has been reconfirmed in the talented Lynne Ramsay's second feature, "Morvern Callar," which, though quite ambitious, unfortunately does not live up to the vast promise of her debut film, the bleak but brilliant "Ratcatcher."
Ramsay's specialty, at least as developed over these first two films, is the leavening of hard-edged British kitchen-sink school realism (think Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Tim Roth's "The War Zone," and Gary Oldman's "Nil by Mouth") with a lush cinematic lyricism. In "Ratcatcher," the working-class Glaswegian director relentlessly followed the troubled, hopeless life of her young protagonist, yet didn't hesitate to employ richly suggestive, even "beautiful" images and sounds despite the depressing surroundings. This sounds contradictory, but rather than clash uncomfortably with the grim ambience, the visual and aural poetry seemed to suggest the possibility of transcendence, or at least a trace of hope, amid all the squalor.
"Morvern Callar," which is based on a novel by Scotsman Alan Warner, follows the decidedly dark fortunes of its eponymous working-class heroine (Samantha Morton), who drudges in a supermarket in a small seaport in western Scotland. When the film opens, it's Christmas morning, and she awakens to discover that her boyfriend has left her two things: his dead body on the kitchen floor (he has committed suicide) and his completed novel on his computer's hard drive. In utter denial, she wanders around in a daze, opening her presents, going to work, then out to the local pub and nightclub with her best mate Lanna (played by a sexy and effervescent Kathleen McDermott), her colleague at the supermarket. With the money her dead boyfriend has left her in his bank account, Morvern invites Lanna along with her on a holiday to a tacky beach resort in Spain. While Lanna is content to get soused and laid with the other loutish British escapees from their country's bad weather, Morvern, once they wander into the forbidding and exotic countryside, has something akin to a spiritual awakening in this ancient land. I won't say what happens with the novel, since it's one of the few unpredictable aspects of the whole film and, I believe, its sole lighthearted moment.
While the predominant aesthetic of the film is classic hand-held realism, Ramsey is not afraid to paint a glorious sunset, hold an extreme long shot on the forlorn Morvern alone in a train station, or switch to hypersaturated color filmstock to capture a grotesque yet liberating taxi ride in the Spanish boondocks. She is also happy to spend long, long minutes assaying the visual properties of physical objects handled by the characters. This technique is presumably enlisted to provide indices to the characters' interior states, but alas, it doesn't. Sometimes we see more interesting shots of physical objects -- say, of worms in a carrot -- which are undoubtedly meant to be suggestive of some thematic weight, but it is unclear what that is. What Ramsay will not allow herself, however, is the slightest concession to telling a story, or to providing any narrative tension whatsoever, and, for most viewers, this rigor will be costly and even fatal. Nothing ever happens in this film, and it never happens over and over again.
Samantha Morton (who played a mute in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown" and who was probably the best thing about Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report") acts her little heart out here, with barely more dialogue than she had in the Allen film. But even her most expressive attempt at sleepwalking can't ultimately hold the viewer's attention.
Thematically, the film relies overmuch on that old standby, the repressed Brit who travels to a southern land and is at first overcome, and then redeemed, by the stunning beauty of the landscape and the simple faith of the unsophisticated peasants. This concept goes back at least as far as Roberto Rossellini's 1954 masterpiece, "Viaggio in Italia," where the same thing happened to Ingrid Bergman. (In fact, the scene in which Lanna and Morvern are physically caught up in the frenzy of a village religious procession seems a direct borrowing from Rossellini's film.) One of the defects of this theme, of course, in addition to its familiarity, is that it condescends to the complex lives of those colorful peasants.
Ramsay has the potential to become a genuine cinematic visionary, especially given her fearless ability to juxtapose the beautiful and the sordid. But she will only come fully into her own, I think, when she realizes that the most memorable moments in a film come when a visual image powerfully expresses, in an utterly non-linear way, a truth that has been painstakingly set up by a well-constructed narrative, no matter how slight.