Lynne Ramsay’s first feature film, Ratcatcher, was a stunning debut, a film with style and substance that portrayed growing up in miserable poverty in Glasgow with both power and originality. Her new film, Morvern Callar, based on a novel by Alan Warner, also displays a stylized look in its use of dark, saturated colors, extreme closeups, often from odd angles, and long moody takes. The substance, however, isn’t as convincing as the style.
Morvern Callar (the name of the protagonist) wakes up on the floor of her flat on Christmas morning, presumably after heavy drinking the night before. (Heavy drinking is a constant ingredient in the film.) She discovers that her boyfriend slit his wrists during the night. He has put a note on the computer, apologizing and willing her the manuscript of his novel, his collection of CDs, and his bank balance. He also tells her there’s enough cash in his account to pay for his funeral, but Morvern (Samantha Morton) has other ideas. She comes up with a plan of her own, one that is puzzling under the circumstances and is left essentially unexplained. She also deletes his name and puts her own on the manuscript and sends it off to a publisher.
Morvern works in a supermarket, along with her best friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott). Little is made of their work lives; it is assumed that the work is dull and repetitious. No wonder then that these young women focus their lives on hard partying. Morvern takes Lanna off on a junket to the beach in Spain where the partying continues, followed by an escape to a non-touristic village where Morvern gets down with a street procession involving both the local patron saint and a bull. While she seems to find a sense of liberation in this excursion, she merely carries her own limited responses to it; the entire episode rings falsely.
Where Ratcatcherhad a strong narrative drive, Morvern Callar is more of a mood piece, a study of a strange mourning that morphs into a classical movie road trip. But Morvern and her friend Lanna are both uncommunicative and inarticulate. The dialogue, when understandable (Glaswegian accents can be impenetrable and titles might have helped here), is as banal as the lives they are leading. Morvern is engulfed in brooding to the sounds of techno-rock music; her mind seems to have drowned in the sounds that constantly fill her head from earphones.
If Morvern Callar intends to be a character study, it fails in making this character understandable, in getting under her skin, in exploring motivation. It follows what she does, but what she does doesn’t seem to emanate from any consistent picture of who she is. The best that the film seems to offer is a rather ordinary, even dull, girl, who does some unexpected things.
Ramsay has a natural filmmaker’s eye for the telling image–the flickering lights of a Christmas tree, an escape into the fetal position in a bathtub, a deserted swimming pool late at night radiating an acid green color, a Spanish cemetery with humble offerings of flowers. But the pieces don’t fuse together into a cogent whole in Morvern Callar, and, well before the end, the film grows as dull as its characters, about whose fate it is hard to care.