In preparation for this piece, I started looking for films that have a similar relationship to Lynn Ramsay’s Morvern Callar. Movies that are similar in tone. Texts which held that same feeling of elliptical poetry. It’s of little surprise that Ramsay’s films themselves came close. Mike Leigh’s Career Girls (1997) and Paweł Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love (2004) were suggestions. Both draw out fraught tensions found in young female relationships while balancing the wobbly feeling of growing into approaching womanhood. Yet neither has the sponge-like absorption of mood Morven Callar owns. Like her other entries, her films feel neither like a waking dream, nor kitchen-sink reality. By the end, they become an abstract mixture of the two.
I found myself too immature for Ramsay’s debut Ratcatcher (1999) when studying film at university. I was too distracted by the suffocating hopelessness of a young boy’s struggle to survive in 1970s Scotland during a garbage strike. Now far away from those booze-hazed days, watching the movie with a few more wrinkles in the comfort of one’s own home made a rewatch far more receptive. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2015) however, was the film that illuminated me to Ramsay and the provocative nature of her films. Her adaptations of both Kevin and 2019s You Were Never Really Here absorbed potent novels before squeezing out deeply emotive and affecting films. They became favourites of mine in the years they were released. Making me not just reconsider my youthful naivety on the grimness of Ratcatcher but realising just how evocative of an artist Ramsay is. However, Morven Callar became the key text for me. Ramsay’s themes of guilt, grief, and complicated individuals fit tightly here. Like pieces of a jigsaw.
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Opening with a close-up shot of its titular character, Morven (Samantha Morton) lies quietly next to another person. A light slowly blinks red from an unseen source. She nestles into the person. Her boyfriend. At first, the moment appears to be one of tenderness. There’s a sharp cut to a wider shot. Blood is smeared on the kitchen floor. Unlike Morven, the boyfriend hasn’t moved. We discover the slow-strobing light stems from a decorated Christmas tree. A fuller picture is given, and our original feelings are rendered as artificial as the plastic tree.
If you discovered your partner killed themselves over the Christmas period, what would you do? Probably not what Morven does. She finds her boyfriend’s manuscript, replaces his name with her own, and sends it off to the first publisher on the list he left. After disposing of his body, Morven decides to use the money saved for the funeral for a trip to Spain with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Morven’s acts are never truly justified. It’s easy to view her as monstrous. Yet Ramsay’s film positions the proceedings at such a distance that the actions are never really judged the way they’re expected to be. By this factor alone, Morven rivals any of Scorsese’s charmingly sinful protagonists. It’s little wonder that Morvern holds a telephone exchange with a stranger which holds the same pain as Travis Bickle’s call to Betsy in Taxi Driver (1976). Just like Scorsese with Bickle, Ramsay obscures Morven’s face while on the receiver. Much like all of Ramsay’s films, the emotion she may have been feeling at the time is decidedly masked.
Morven Callar plays similarly to Ramsay’s debut Ratcatcher. Death occurs as an inciting incident, but instead of an orthodox narrative, we observe a character study by way of vignettes. Breaking free from the constraint of typical plotting, Morven Callar becomes a mosaic of grief, guilt, and coming of age. As the film moves from scene to scene, there is never a full grip on how Morven truly feels about what has occurred. Through Morton’s fascinatingly broad expression, her face feels like a mirror that deflects how one may feel toward her. For this writer, Callar’s motivation never feels conniving. There’s never a sense of malice. More like a person seeing that while the relationship has ended abruptly, her life has not. Despite her undertaking, the usual negative descriptors don’t seem to apply. It just doesn’t come across as selfish. Through her actions, as well as throwaway lines from secondary characters, we suddenly gain glimpses of what could have been a tumultuous relationship. If her boyfriend doesn’t end his life, Morven doesn’t get the chance to begin her own. It’s an unsettling thought, but one that Ramsay doesn’t shy away from. Although it is something that plagues Callar throughout the film.
Her boyfriend’s face is never seen in full. We never see any part of the novel that he dedicated to Callar. And yet the film’s soundtrack, a blend of popular ambient music and 60’s classics, allows this man to haunt Morven in ways he could never if he were an actual living presence in the film. Through both this and Alwin H. Küchler’s allusive cinematography, the film captures the indescribable weight of grief. The flashing lights of the Christmas tree come off like a warning beacon as Morven at first puts off dealing with the body. Such scenes sit side by side with imagery of crawling ants and insects, harking back to the surrealist repression seen in films like Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Yet the film also feels like a unique feminist text in a way that many current mainstream movies struggle with. Morven could not find herself were it not for her boyfriend’s suicide. A man who we’re told goes off into moods and slept with her best friend. The grief which rises at times is real. But then again so is freedom. The argument of whether her actions are right or wrong can easily be debated for hours. But what’s more interesting is how the decision made is solely hers, as his self-destruction suddenly blesses Morven with a forbidden agency that was held from her. Yet when watching Callar’s disengaged face, staring at the hedonism taking place at the tacky holiday resort she booked, there’s a hint that her new-found freedom may be a burden. An 18 to 30 may not uncover spiritual enlightenment.
Ramsay excels in creating stories in which difficult people seem haunted by their problematic decisions, often guilted by trauma that they had a hand in creating. This comes to a peak in We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which the prominent red details found within almost every scene are a persistent, nagging metaphor of the spilled blood and guilt felt by lead character Eva as she comes to grips with a tragic act of violence caused by her son. Here, Morven switches between baking sweet treats with Lanna, to shaking with the memory of disposing of the body. For Christmas, her deceased partner gave her a Walkman and a mixtape as a gift. This becomes the closest thing the audience gets to a connection to any anguish felt, often becoming an ironic voice to the emotionally mute Morven. Yet the separation of space between the viewer and Callar also becomes a huge reminder of grief being a known unknown.
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But it’s not like Morven isn’t honest with people, whether on screen or with the audience. Throughout the film, Morven mentions her boyfriend as “lost”. At one point she almost straight up admits the tragic circumstance, only for the words to be ignored. At one point Morven describes life as “39 years till pension”. A casual-sounding line that highlights the constrained lives of the characters which inhabit Ramsay’s films. Her reluctance to truly impart the situation to others may frustrate viewers, yet it also highlights that if the emotional connection is what she’s looking for, she may not find it in the fruit and veg aisle of the supermarket she works at.
It’s no wonder that Nicolas Roeg is one of Ramsay’s favourite directors; another maverick creator who shaped one of Britain’s most candid and haunting mosaics centred around grief in Don’t Look Now (1973). Both directors feel more in tune with feeling than relying upon tired plot points to highlight clarified feelings. Other reviews have pointed to feelings of frustration as Morton’s Callar blankly observes moments wrapping around her. Processing things in her way. If you watch films for the why of it all, this film will not help you. We wouldn’t do what she’s done. We couldn’t. But we’re not Morven Callar. No one can tell you how to grieve. And so, it’s best to leave her as the Walkman plays her boyfriend’s songs once more. They provide the connection she feels she needs. Pain? Relief? We’re not to know. Her grief is her own.
Morvern Callar was released in the UK on 1st November 2002.