Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay’s characters often are locked in a struggle to find their own identity. In the beginning, their identity is defined by others. By the end, if they are still defined by others, they have lost; if they have successfully found themselves, they have triumphed — sort of. On the journey, there is a gradual shedding of childhood naiveté.
Ramsay’s accomplished debut feature, “Ratcatcher,” was a bold character study of a young boy living in a working class Glasgow neighborhood during the garbage strike of 1973. At the beginning, little James’ friend drowns in a local canal. James’ ultimate question is whether he, living in a dysfunctional family in grungy, rat-infested conditions, will also drown, figuratively speaking, or keep his head above water.
I own the glorious Criterion Collection DVD of “Ratcatcher,” which has Ramsay’s three short films and a charming interview included among the extras, so I was looking forward to her follow-up film, “Morvern Callar.” The good news is Ramsay has stayed true to her own identity – I love her slow, enriching pace and attention to detail, and cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler’s sharp, pale images are welcome anytime. But “Morvern Callar” ultimately is a bit of a letdown.
Like “Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar” opens with a death. It is Christmas Day. The title character, played by rising star Samantha Morton, is curled up beside the dead body of her boyfriend, who has committed suicide. His suicide note tells her he believes that his act is “the right thing to do” and: “I love you; be brave.” He also reveals that he has written a novel on his computer, and provides a list of publishers for submission.
At first, Morvern buys time. She reports to her crummy job at a grocery store in a small Scottish town, and parties at night with her best friend, Lanna (newcomer Kathleen McDermott). Morvern tells Lanna her boyfriend has left her.
But back at the apartment, the body is still there, and it will only begin to smell worse. She makes a decision: She withdraws all the money from her boyfriend’s bank account, cuts up his body and buries it in the woods, changes the novel’s authorship to her own and ships it off to the first publisher on the list, and buys a package vacation to Spain for herself and Lanna. The boy who has defined her life has now been effectively erased from existence.
In Spain, the differences between Lanna’s simple worldview and Morvern’s increasing quest for inner harmony threaten to split the friends apart. “We could have been clubbin’,” whines Lanna as they are stuck in the desert after visiting a small, not happenin’ town, “instead of being surrounded by donkeys and cactus.” To Morvern, her world has grown much bigger.
Tackling an emotional void is an ambitious, difficult project for any director. Watching “Morvern Callar,” I was reminded of Hou Hsiao-hsien’s recent “”Millennium Mambo,” in which Shu Qi played a similarly disconnected young woman in the modern world, and Bernardo Bertolucci’s adaptation of Paul Bowles’ “The Sheltering Sky” (1990), which also dealt with emotionally fractured characters trying to find themselves in a desolate other place.
However, unlike in those other films, Morvern’s emotional void is too barren to take root in the viewer’s consciousness. Morton — a mute in Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, and a “precog” (the ultimate in emotional disconnect) in Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report — is quite good, her English accent clashing with the pure Scottish burr of her mates notwithstanding, but between her, Ramsay, and perhaps Alan Warner’s original novel, Morvern’s true nature, whatever it is, doesn’t quite come through.
I found myself missing the young James of “Ratcatcher.” He felt isolated, all right, but at least he was interested in the world around him, and he had a vision of his future self, even if it was a naive one. Morvern has neither. She is so withdrawn she’s indecipherable, and that wears thin.
However, there are many great images, like a dead and rotting carrot at the market right near a cut to the rotting corpse of her boyfriend, and a consistent vision. Ramsay is clearly extraordinarily talented, and based on three short films and two features, here’s betting her third feature will be something to behold.