"Morvern Callar"

Samantha Morton rules the screen in Lynne Ramsay's strange and powerful tale of a young Scottish woman dealing (or not dealing) with her boyfriend's Christmas suicide.

Published December 20, 2002 9:00PM (EST)

Even within the strange and wonderful world of contemporary Scottish novels, Alan Warner's 1995 "Morvern Callar" was a revelation. Written in the first person, in language that's partly Scottish dialect and partly impressionist dots and dashes, it's the story of a young woman -- the Morvern Callar of the title -- whose boyfriend commits suicide on Christmas Day. What she does afterward is sometimes a bit puzzling and other times completely baffling. But she becomes less and less foreign to us as she finds her way through her grief -- Warner seems to be suggesting that there are times when we don't know how to feel things, and fumbling our way along is the only route. The book's emotional landscape is stark and direct, denuded of the flora of sentimentality. It's a picture of a woman who has been scraped raw by grief, but who also reaches out to the chance at freedom it affords her.

I would have thought "Morvern Callar" an unfilmable book, or at least one that would be easy to botch. But Lynne Ramsay, director of "Ratcatcher" -- and the director who has signed to adapt Alice Sebold's bestseller "The Lovely Bones" -- has turned it into a work of astonishing delicacy and force, a tone poem about the Frankenstein jolts that all of us, at one time or another, have to live through. (Ramsay co-wrote the screenplay with Liana Dognini.) "Morvern Callar" is a small movie and not a particularly detailed one; it drifts by on mood and nuance and suggestion. But the picture grows richer and more mournful as it moves along -- its sense of rhythm always pushes forward, like the tide forcing its way up the shore inch by inch. It has no formal dramatic structure whatsoever, and yet what's there is so wholly felt that it seems almost classical -- a sustained fugue that catches us up gently and carries us to a place we never would have expected.

Recalling "Morvern Callar" days afterward, I found myself remembering it as almost a silent movie, even thought it does, of course, have dialogue, not to mention a great deal of suggestive and very carefully chosen music. "Morvern Callar" feels silent because of the face of its star, Samantha Morton, who plays Morvern. Morton played an endearing young mute girl in Woody Allen's "Sweet & Lowdown," and then a virtually mute (and mutant) character in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report."

Much as I acknowledge Morton's role in the Allen movie as brilliant casting, I don't think it's why I associate her with the tradition of silent-film acting. Her features are nothing like those of Lillian Gish, but I see something of Gish in her. There's sweetness and vulnerability, of course, but there's also something else. Silent film, for obvious reasons, often favored actors who could write their feelings in large loops on the screen. But Gish's performances were shockingly interior. The camera opened up to her to drink in all she had to say, to get every wordless drop. I think Morton has a similar command over the camera -- it's not egotism but rather a special kind of gentle, unspoken authority. In a world of beautiful or even just striking actresses, she's a face. That face -- it has the acorn shape of a girl on a '20s valentine -- is all eyes, and it's possible to find yourself searching them intently, sometimes at the expense of actually listening to her lines. They have a language all their own.

Morton is the perfect actress to play Morvern. The movie opens with a shot of her lying on the floor, curled protectively around a man we can't quite see, gently stroking his face. The camera pulls back to show us the pools of blood that have collected under his wrists; he used to be a man, but now he's just a dead body sprawled in a doorway, animated by the false hope of blinking Christmas tree lights.

Later, Morvern seems almost blasé about the body -- she circles it curiously, eyeing it almost suspiciously, as if there were actually some need to weigh the obvious evidence in front of her. Her boyfriend -- about whom we learn almost nothing throughout the course of the movie -- has left a note: "Sorry Morvern. Don't try to understand. It just seemed like the right thing to do." The note explains that he has left money in a bank account that Morvern is to use for his funeral. He has also left his completed novel on the computer; Morvern is to print it out and send it to the publishers he has indicated, starting with the first one on the list.

There aren't a whole lot of logical explanations for the things Morvern does next. But that's precisely the point. "Morvern Callar" is about the inexplicability, and the fierce and deep individuality, of grief. Morvern tears into the presents her boyfriend has wrapped up for her, a last act of generosity before that knife-twisting act of selfishness: A cowhide jacket, a cigarette lighter, a Walkman and a tape labeled "Music for you." She scrutinizes the presents, absorbing the reality of them through her fingers.

Next thing we know, she's readying herself for a night out, putting on a black dress, some sheer stockings, a pair of sandals, a gold name necklace (not, incidentally, her own name). She heads out to meet her friend, Lanna (the quietly sensational Kathleen McDermott, who has never acted before) for a night of drinking and dancing and falling into bed with whomever. She doesn't tell Lanna, or anyone else, what has happened. Eventually, she simply says numbly, "He left."

There are two events that give direction and drive to the action of the picture: Morvern calls up her boyfriend's novel and, after staring hard at the title page (we see it through her eyes), she slowly, letter by letter, erases his name and replaces it with her own. She sends the novel out, but not before she disposes of her boyfriend's body. (She has left it alone for days, stepping over it or walking purposefully around it, as if it were a piece of furniture she used to trip over but now has gotten used to.) Then she takes the money he has left in the account, and, fleeing her numbing supermarket job and nowheresville Scottish town, hauls herself and Lanna off on a package vacation to Spain's rave circuit.

But the real action, all of it, takes place in Morvern's head. We see her frolicking with Lanna (the two have a relaxed, gossamer-light friendship that even extends to a four-way romp in bed with two boys they pick up while nightclubbing), or dragging her way through the endless hours at the wretched overlit supermarket where she works. Morvern is wholly present physically, and yet barely there at all for any of it; more often than not, we see her listening to her Walkman (the earbuds connect her to the music like a lifeline), living her life through the songs her boyfriend has put on that tape.

Ramsay uses the music beautifully; it seems more like part of Morton's performance than any sort of external enhancement. Can, Stereolab, the Velvet Underground -- the music guides Morvern through her wayward odyssey of confused, unacknowledged sorrow. (One of the picture's most striking moments is a shot of Morvern drifting through that sterile white supermarket accompanied by the crusty croak of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra's "Some Velvet Morning.")

Morton feels her way along with the character of Morvern. It's an unhurried performance in which we come to understand Morvern tick by tick, coming to love her long before we actually understand her. Morton is open only intermittently, and we learn to watch for those small doorways, the better to figure out what's going on with her. In one scene, she and Lanna, after their night of clubbing, drop in on Lanna's elderly grandmother. Despite the fact that she's slowed down by a walker, she hustles the two sweaty, disheveled girls into the tub together, where they soap each other down and spill their priceless secrets.

This is the first time that Morvern says anything to Lanna about the fact that her boyfriend is gone (although she never tells anyone that he's dead). You can see her hesitating, unsure how much she wants to reveal about what's happened, because divulging anything significant would mean she'd be forced to talk about her feelings. She tells Lanna the news hesitantly, almost casually; Lanna responds by reassuring her that her boyfriend will most certainly come back. That's the beginning of the first rift between the two girls, and you can see it tearing away at Morvern in tiny, almost imperceptible increments.

It doesn't get much better for the girls on their trip. Morvern feels more lost in Spain than she did at home in Scotland, and Morton begins to show us, more and more, her inescapable isolation. Lanna, on the other hand, is delighted with the setup of their package tour, one of those youth holiday things complete with getting-to-know-you party games in which a boy and a girl are slipped into a sack and expected to emerge wearing each other's bathing suits. You can see that the cheap, prefab package tour activities are all wrong for Morvern -- they'd be wrong even if her boyfriend hadn't died.

What Morton communicates more than anything is a sense of confused, drifting change. "Morvern Callar" is a road movie all right, but its chief geographical features can't be found in Spain and Scotland: They're all in Morvern's head. As the picture moves along, and as Morton shows us more, it becomes easier to see why Morvern put her name on that novel. For one thing, it's a small act of revenge: Morvern is so stalwart about her boyfriend's death that it's easy for us to see how purely selfish his suicide was. (It's she who, literally, has to clean up the mess.) Her zapping out his name on that file and inserting her own is one little way of getting back at him for what he's done to her.

But even more, I think, it's a way for her to absorb his identity into her own, to take a piece of him with her once and for all. There's an almost shocking degree of willfulness in the act -- we can see that quiet Morvern has always had more guts than her boyfriend, possibly more guts than anyone. (Face it: A man who leaves a suicide note that reads "It just seemed like the right thing to do" isn't likely to be teeming with passion.) And signing her name to that novel is a desperate act that ends up kick-starting her life into motion.

Morton gets most of the screen time in "Morvern Callar," but she's never working alone -- she and Ramsay pull the movie along like a team. (Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler is in on the gig, too. The movie has a marvelous glow, and it never looks dour -- in fact, he intensifies the magic of even that wonderful, dry Spanish light.) In one of the Spanish scenes, Ramsay shows Morvern lounging listlessly on the balcony of her hotel room; behind her we see the faceless white expanse of the curving wall of that hotel, its windows like blank, stupid eyes. The contrast between Morvern's shivering, stuttering but indestructible sense of life and the deadness of that hotel stops you cold.

That scene is as representative as any of what Ramsay pulls off in "Morvern Callar": Actors are directors' surest means to convey emotion. But if you know how, it's possible to brush delicate layers of feeling into the visual and aural textures of the film itself. "Morvern Callar" begins with the aftermath of a suicide, but it's about life and life only. This is a film that breathes.

By Stephanie Zacharek

Stephanie Zacharek is a senior writer for Salon Arts & Entertainment.

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