Morvern Callar (2002)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2003 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

Christmas tree lights blink on and off with predictable regularity--red, white, red, momentarily illuminating the dimly lit Glasgow flat again, and again. A man lies face down on the floor, motionless. There is blackened blood on his cut wrists. A young woman curls up next to him, fetal like, in harmony with her recently deceased boyfriend who took his life this Christmas yet she is clearly conscious; alive. The bright white square of a computer monitor burning in the corner of the room reveals his epitaph, his suicide note to Morvern Callar, the woman on the floor, and the eponymous heroine of Lynne Ramsay's ("Ratcatcher") latest film.

Thus begins "Morvern Callar," an adept, focused, but strangely detached portrait of a young woman's journey to self-discovery that, alas, if it happens at all only really happens in her head.

Over the course of the next few days Morvern will hook up with her girlfriend Lanna, withdraw funeral arrangement money from her boyfriend's bank account and use it to fund a pleasure trip for two to Spain, where two giddy girls get to party on down with little umbrellas in their drinks and little respect for the dead. But perhaps even more cruelly Morvern will also change the authorship of the novel her boyfriend wrote for her and submit it as her own for publication, a move that results in a first-time writer's contract of 100,000 (and stretches the limits of credibility into the process).

The first part of Ramsay's film is filled with hulking close-ups of Morvern, played with strength and authority by Samantha Morton (she was the mute to Sean Penn's jazz guitarist in Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown"). She thinks, she smokes, she bathes, she thinks some more. If there are understandings, even revelations, to be had here we are not privy to them. Morvern is like a ghost, stuck in neutral, crying for her loss. And when she can take it no more, she bags the body in bits and disposes of it.

The film lightens up considerably when the girls head abroad, and where the relationship between Morvern and Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) is extremely well drawn, chummy and intimate in that way only girls know. It's clear the trip is supposed to be an existential journey for Morvern, one of revelation, perhaps even transformation, but we are never really allowed into Morvern's personal world, as the film's emotional and reactionary content is kept well at arm's length.

One intriguing element of the film--one that works particularly well, in fact--is the way in which Morvern talks about her boyfriend (interestingly revealed to be better educated than she) to those, including Lanna, who aren't aware of his passing. She refers to him as being "at home" or "in the kitchen" when questioned about his whereabouts. She never lies about his condition, yet her words skirt the obvious issue with a resolved sort of ambiguity.

Well intentioned but ultimately too aloof and pretentious for its own good, "Morvern Callar" will be noticed more for its bold central performance by Samantha Morton than for anything it might wish to reveal about the grieving process.

David N. Butterworth

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