Color, 2002, 97 mins. 45 secs.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott.
Fun City Editions (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD), Lionsgate, Palm Pictures (DVD) (US R1 NTSC), Momentum (DVD) (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
After taking the indie world by storm with a string of acclaimed short films and her stirring debut feature, 1999's Ratcatcher, Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay confounded expectations with her second and perhaps most unjustly overlooked film. Based on a 1995 novel by Alan Warner and featuring one of the most epic soundtracks of its era, Morvern Callar is a challenging and often slippery character study examining self identity and dislocation, anchored by a remarkable central performance by Samantha Morton in between her two Oscar-nominated performances (for Sweet and Lowdown and In America).
When she awakens on Christmas morning to find her boyfriend, James, dead of a suicide, Morvern (Morton) seems to have difficulty processing her circumstances including a mixtape he left behind and a suicide note instructing her to "be brave." Pocketing the money he left for his funeral and altering the manuscript of his book to give authorship to herself before sending it off to his publisher, she keeps the news of his death from her best friend, Lanna (McDermott), who works with her at a supermarket. Morvern and Lanna end up taking a trip to Spain where their paths begin to diverge both physically and emotionally.
Paring down the novel to its bare essentials, Ramsay's film adamantly refuses to offer signposts to the viewer about how to feel or react to its main character or the motivations behind the journey she takes over the course of the story. Instead it allows Morton's performance and the delicate camerawork and vivid use of color to craft a mood and let the viewer read what they like into the gestures and sparse dialogue, not to mention the expert use of songs by the likes of Can, The Velvet Underground, Stereolab, and Broadcast. Though the film received a warm reception during its extensive festival play, it retains the lowest profile of Ramsay's quartet of completed films to date, also including We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here as well as a handful of widely reported, unrealized, and extremely contentious projects along the way.
Released in the U.S. by indie outfit Cowboy Pictures, Morvern Callar turned up later on DVD from Palm Pictures (later reissued from Lionsgate) featuring a trailer and a EPK batch of soundbites with the director and two leads. Much better is the 2022 Blu-ray premiere from Fun City Editions, which features an excellent presentation that retains the original grainy but vibrant texture of the film (thanks to a 2K scan from the 35mm interpositive) and features an evocative DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (with optional English subtitles) that makes spacious use of the songs in particular. A new commentary by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Josh Nelson starts off making a case for Ramsay on the basis of her four films while also touching on differences from the novel, the role of music in the film, its slight connections to genre films (particularly the ultimate fate of the dead boyfriend), and the role of gender dynamics. The Chris O'Neill video essay "Somewhere Beautiful" (7m29s) takes a surprising approach by eschewing narration here (apart from a brief spoken intro from the novel), appropriately using subtitles over moody imagery and music from the film to dissect its way of communicating to the viewer without the narration present in the book. Also included are the U.S. and U.K. trailers, plus an insert booklet featuring an essay by K.J. Relth-Miller about the film's correlative between female subjectivity and grief, plus a Margaret Barton-Fumo study of the songs in the film including the Warp Records catalog.
Reviewed on February 26, 2022