Written by: Michael Mackenzie on February 14th, 2006
Theatrical Release Date: UK, 2002
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Writers: Alan Warner (novel); Lynne Ramsay and Liana Dognini
Cast: Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott
DVD Released: December 13th, 2003
Approximate Running Time: 97 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Mono English
DVD Release: Palm Pictures
Region Coding: Region 1 NTSC
Retail Price: $24.99
Morvern Callar is a film that, without fail, leaves me completely and utterly depressed every time I watch it. I’m not sure why this is: most would probably not consider it to be a particularly downbeat film, and I certainly would not classify myself as a pessimist. Still, for some reason, once the end credits begin to roll, I always find myself left with the unshakable sensation that life is futile. With this review I hope to work through some of these thoughts and attempt to explain why this film has such a profound effect on me.
Adapted from Alan Warner’s novel, the plot, if you can call it such, focuses on the Movern Callar of the film’s title, as played by Samantha Morton. Movern, who works in a supermarket in a small town on Scotland’s east coast, wakes up on Christmas Day to discover that her boyfriend has slit his wrists, leaving her a tape contain a compilation of music, as well as a note asking her to print out his completed novel and mail it to prospective publishers. Rather than feel down in the dumps, Morvern promptly deletes his name from the manuscript and replaces it with her own, then heads out to a party.
The above synopsis covers the first ten minutes or so, and in essence it serves as a litmus test for the film’s audience. If you don’t enjoy this opening scene (“enjoy” perhaps not being the best word, but it serves its purpose), you sure as hell won’t enjoy what follows. Basically, after a night of partying with her best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott), Morvern returns home and, over the course of a couple of days, takes care of her affairs. She sends her boyfriend’s manuscript off, hacks his corpse into pieces and buries it in the hills, mops all the blood off the floor, burns a pizza and sets off with Lanna on holiday to Spain.
Reading that outline would suggest that the film is either a gruesome horror movie or a black comedy, but neither comes even close to the mark. Told without a hint of irony, Morvern Callar pretty much defies classification. It can’t even really be considered a character study, since Morvern is such a closed book that we never really learn anything about her, beyond the fact that she isn’t squeamish, enjoys solitude and is open to new things. As we followe her on her trip across Spain, leaving the confines of the Club 18-30 resort she and Lanna have booked into and heading out into the wilderness, our strongest point of identification is with the increasingly distraught Lanna, who quickly discovers how little she has in common with her best friend.
The film never attempts to make any sort of a statement, instead simply following Morvern on her journey, taking in the sights and adopting an almost documentary-like approach. One of the most common criticisms levelled against it is that it has not plot – an argument that I don’t feel particularly inclined to dispute. Certainly, it has the most rudimentary skeleton of a three-act structure, but if asked to sum up the film’s story, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It basically consists of “Morvern does this, then she does this”, and given that she appears in every single scene, it’s amazing how little we learn about our protagonist.
Many will no doubt consider this lack of content to be a huge problem, but personally I’m not particularly concerned. I’m very much of the opinion that film is, at its heart, about making the audience feel certain emotions, an objective that Morvern Callar absolutely fulfils. Co-writer/director Lynne Ramsay uses a variety of visual and aural tricks to suck us into the film’s world, her chief tools being rhythmic editing and filling the soundtrack with music from Morvern’s mix tape, which includes material by the likes of Aphex Twin and the Velvet Underground. Her visual style is muted and naturalistic and yet totally appropriate, contrasting the drab, grey exteriors of the Scottish winter with the neon glow of the various nightclubs and parties, and again with the warm, arid colours of the Spanish countryside.
If I have any overt criticism to make of the film, it is with regard to the casting of Samantha Morton as Morvern. She’s a fantastic actor, that much can’t be denied, but she somehow feels wrong for the part. In the book, Morvern is Scottish, and while Morton has explained that she chose to retain her normal English accent because she didn’t feel able to do a convincing Scottish one, another more pressing issue is her age. Morton was 25 at the time the film was released, but – no disrespect intended to her – she looks somewhat older. The various parties and clubs Morvern goes to, not to mention the twentysomethings’ package holiday, suggest a character in her early 20s, and in this respect the casting just doesn’t ring true. The fact that the woman who is her best friend looks so very much younger than her simply emphasises this. Still, her performance can’t be faulted, which is the main thing. Nor can that of newcomer Kathleen McDermott, playing the part of Lanna. I can’t say enough positive things about her performance, and it’s hard to believe that she had never acted in anything before appearing in here. Actually, perhaps it’s not quite so hard to believe, since the strength of her performance is how unaffected and natural it is. She seems like a real person rather than an actor playing a character, and the fact that she is an unknown furthers this illusion. It’s criminal that McDermott has appeared in so little since Morvern Callar , although perhaps it’s just as well, as over-exposure might have the adverse effect of detracting from her remarkable “performance” (a term that seems almost like a contradiction) here.
In a sense, writing a review of Morvern Callar is almost a futile exercise. It’s not possible to analyse the plot since, to put it bluntly, there isn’t one, and the film’s refusal to make any sort of statement about any of the events taking place means that it is as much of a blank canvass as its protagonist. Still, something about it speaks to me in a manner that words are inadequate to express, and I only hope that people will take my advice and give this perplexing but profoundly affecting film a look. I doubt I’ll watch Morvern Callar again for some time: such is its power over me.
Palm Pictures have given Morvern Callar a pretty decent presentation for their R1 DVD. The film is presented anamorphically in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and faithfully presents the rough, grainy texture of the original film materials. According to IMDB, it was shot in 35mm, but particularly in the earlier scenes, the material looks more like 16mm. In any event, there are no problems with the compression, and although there are some noticeable shifts in the colour and brightness levels, this seems to be intentional. The transfer’s only setback is that it looks a bit softer than I would have liked, particularly in wider shots.
The audio options are less impressive. Separate 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes have been provided, but the 5.1 track can pretty much be ruled out, as it is noticeably desynchronised, lagging behind the picture for the film’s entire running time. The stereo track is really not bad, but it lacks the immersive quality of the 5.1 variant, which would have been my preferred choice of listening if not for the synchronisation problems.
Another major issue is Palm Pictures’ failure to provide subtitles. This is problematic not just for deaf viewers, but also because I suspect a number of people will have trouble understanding the Scottish accents that are prevalent in the first half of the film. Indeed, despite the fact that Kathleen McDermott comes from the same town as me, Glasgow, at times I had difficulty in making out what she was saying. Ironically, the UK release, which you might think would have less need of subtitles, does provide them.
To be honest, the extras on offer are pretty disappointing. In addition to the theatrical trailer (very poor image quality), previews for other Palm Pictures releases and a couple of perfunctory web links, there are interviews with Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott and Lynne Ramsay. They are listed as “unedited”, but this proves to be misleading as they are essentially little more than brief snippets in which the three women discuss, for the most part, casting issues. At just over two minutes, Morton speaks for the longest, while Ramsay’s one-minute clip is the shortest.
By the way, now would also be a good time to point out that I’m not particularly fond of Palm Pictures’ cover art for this release. The UK version’s cover, viewable here, is in my view vastly superior.
Palm Pictures’ release of Morvern Callar features a decent transfer but leaves something to be desired in terms of audio and extras. If you’re considering picking up a copy of this film, your best be is probably to go with the UK release which, while lacking any extras and reportedly featuring a slightly weaker transfer, has subtitles and a properly synchronised 5.1 track.
This review originally appeared at Whiggles.com and is reprinted here with permission.