Novels and suicide are the subjects of this Scotting film reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway.
I wrote it for you. I love you. Be brave.
Adapted from the novel by Alan Warner, director Lynne Ramsay's second feature is a chronicle of a young Scottish woman adrift. Featuring the gifted Samantha Morton, the film, if the critics' blurbs are to be believed, promises to be a remarkable, powerful experience. Does it deliver?
Facts of the Case
Morvern Callar (Samantha Morton) is a young Scottish woman who spends her days working in a local market and her nights clubbing and partying with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Her life is changed, however, when she awakens one morning during the Christmas season to find her boyfriend has ended his life by slashing his wrists. He leaves no suicide note, only a brief goodbye on his computer, along with instructions regarding the manuscript of a novel he had written. That evening, Morvern goes out with Lanna, but tells no one of these events. According to Morvern, her lover is at home in the kitchen, which in a perverse sense is actually the truth. She will later tell Lanna her boyfriend left her and moved out of the country. She will also remove his name from the manuscript, substituting her own before she sends it out to prospective publishers. What happens next you should experience for yourself.
Director Ramsay (Ratcatcher), working here with cinematographer Alwin Kulcher, shoots the film in a cinema vérité style, making use of mostly natural light and handheld cameras. The film unfolds, not surprisingly, in a novelistic manner, relying more on character and incident than the machinations of plot. It wouldn't work half as well with a cast half as strong, but that's not a problem here.
Morton and McDermott are both nothing short of astonishing in this film. Until now my main experience with Morton had been as the dissenting Pre-Cog in Minority Report, so I wasn't really sure to expect, but I wasn't let down. Carrying a film of this type can't be an easy task, but she pulls it off effortlessly. McDermott makes her feature film debut here, and her performance is every bit as commanding as that of her co-star. Both easily capture the ennui of young individuals stuck in a holding pattern. Nothing is revealed about the past of these characters, but it's easy to see their day-to-day activities don't vary much.
Ramsay is wise in presenting the story as matter-of-factly as she does. The filmmaker doesn't judge Morvern, and that's the correct choice. It's apparent she's not acting out of malice, but why exactly does she pretend her boyfriend's work is her own? We don't know if she's read the work, so she's taking a bit of a risk in doing so, but at the same she seems to have nothing to lose and everything to gain (not just monetarily, either). This uncertainty is one of the strengths of the film, though.
The film also achieves what I think only the best novel-to-screen adaptations achieve: it made me want to read the source material. Having seen the film, I'm making it a point to seek out the novel.
The presentation is fine for a film of this nature, with one exception. The transfer exhibits frequent grain, but I'm sure that's a stylistic choice and is probably present in the negative (I can't imagine this film working as well if the cinematography resembled that of a Michael Bay film). There are a few nicks and scratches on the print, but it doesn't become bothersome. The soundtrack is naturally dialogue heavy, and is primarily screen-centric. The surrounds and LFE channel do kick in on a few occasions, conveying pub/party atmosphere and the music on the mix tape Morvern's boyfriend made her as a Christmas gift. I might add that a ringing phone near the beginning of the film sounded over my right shoulder and nearly scared me half to death.
The disc isn't packed to the gills with features, but in this case that's not a bad thing, as the film pretty much speaks for itself. The theatrical trailer is included, along with brief (and I do mean brief) interviews with the director and her stars. Previews for other Palm Pictures title and weblinks are also included.
What about the exception I mentioned? The disc contains no subtitles or captions. While that might not seem like a big deal, there are times during this film when the Scottish accents can be quite thick and unintelligible. At certain points I missed important dialogue simply because I couldn't understand what was being said. I backtracked and cranked up the volume, but that didn't help. I was only able to understand the gist of what had been said by the characters' later actions.
Morvern Callar is both quietly effective and quietly affecting. This is the type of film for which there seems to be no middle ground. I know people to whom I could never recommend this film, and others who would, for lack of a better phrase, get it right off the bat. Maybe I can sum it up this way: if you prefer Bad Boys 2 to American Splendor, this film probably isn't for you.
Palm Pictures is slapped on the wrist for dropping the ball on the subtitle option. Lynne Ramsay is cleared of all charges and is free to move on with her next project, an adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, if Peter Jackson hasn't taken over, that is. Court is adjourned.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
Review content copyright © 2004 Mitchell Hattaway; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.