All She Wants Is...

'Morvern Callar' pleasures its heroine

In Alan Warner's 1997 novel Morvern Callar, a young Scottish woman discovers her boyfriend's suicided corpse. She hacks up and disposes of his body, puts her name on his prized novel and sells it to a publisher, and jets off to the Mediterranean rave scene with a girlfriend. The Morvern book jacket lauds Warner for exposing "the vast internal emptiness of a generation." I think Warner was feeling a bit left behind himself--hence the suicide of the god-like "Him," and the turning over of the narrative to Morvern, a creature so primitive she can't identify emotional states. But of course, she is hardly her story's author. My favorite Warner-as-Morvern-ism: "I did a number-one then a number-two remembering always to wipe backwards." Thanks for the reminder, Daddy.

There's a sweet karmic revenge, then, in Lynne Ramsay's screen adaptation of Warner's book. The filmmakers, with actor Samantha Morton's able help, color in Warner's caricature so that their heroine's emptiness is not necessarily a moral failing (treatable, as in Warner's finale, with pregnancy). I believe male writers can and should create female characters, and vice versa; Ramsay more than capably deciphered early adolescent boyhood in her lushly bitter Ratcatcher. But this cinematic Morvern dances on the grave of her creator with such a sense of grievous discovery that I can't help warning Warner: Beware. The cat's got your tongue.

She's gotta have it: Samantha Morton in 'Morvern Callar'
Cowboy Pictures
She's gotta have it: Samantha Morton in 'Morvern Callar'

The difference is clear even from Morvern's discovery of the corpse. Ramsay films Morton's Morvern lying next to it in the blink of Christmas tree lights, and somehow the color of the shot and its solemnity convey more hurt and confusion than the crying Warner describes--perhaps because Morvern's prone body seems to ask, Why didn't you invite me along? The strength of this weary question makes everything that comes after a kind of response--until the question shifts dramatically.

Morvern goes dancing and drinking later that evening--a sign of her vacuousness for some readers of Warner's fiction. Ramsay and cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler record Morvern's shadowed walk to the pub, and the weight that settles into her face between sips and smiles. In this way, Ramsay makes of dancing and drinking (and drugging) something not inherently immoral: They are activities--shaded, like most activities, by varying and complex emotions. Indeed, Ramsay uses the differing moods of Morvern's partying as stages of a journey.

To be fair, Warner tried this, too--offering song lists to document the emotions of his unselfconscious heroine. But reading song titles isn't the same as hearing songs, or watching someone hear them. The speedy pound of house music, the candy-colored flash of lights across Morton's still face as she moves through a thrashing crowd--I've seen a hundred scenes of dance clubs, but never one that felt like being in a dance club, until now. Ramsay gets it because she's watching Morvern, not judging her, and because she's sympathetic to the need for dancing. (In Ratcatcher, a worn mother rouses her family to swinging, fleeting joy with "C'mon Everybody," then slow-dances her forgiveness with the husband who has just hit her.)

Morton keeps discovering Morvern: locating determination in the character's quietness, and awe in her ignorance. People can complain that Morton's roles rarely call on her to speak much--and her choice not to deep-six her English accent here for a Scottish one stumps me. Yet I'd put this work and her turn in Minority Report up against any acting from the past year: She's the best silent actress of our talky era. Morton makes me feel Morvern's arms lift and stretch in the Mediterranean's clarity and heat. Better, she makes me feel the character's stultified brain crack and stretch--and lift, too, as if suddenly winged.

Morvern's bubbly travel buddy Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) stands up to her close taciturnity and forces her to engage. Lanna may not have Morvern's drive or depth--she'll not question what destiny has written for her--but she teaches more than one bracing lesson in shaking happiness from the present moment. And the actors' chemistry is sensuous, poignant, hilarious. Kuchler's photography does some of Morton's work for her: Spain has seldom looked so sharp and saturated with color, especially after the cold shadows of this Scotland. In fact, Kuchler's visuals are so vividly liquid that I felt like I was swimming in them. (In the last scene, the combination of images and Ramsay's pop soundtrack is just jaw-dropping.)

Still, I'm not sure whether this story takes flight because of Ramsay and her collaborators or because it was meant to be told with the immediacy of film. I'm thinking it's both. The filmmakers understand that Morvern's present-moment "primitiveness"--her thirst for sensual pleasure--is finally her conscious answer to the writer's choice of nothingness. Morvern wants beauty, color, energy, light. That's not all she wants, but she won't pretend any longer that a life without those things is life. She has seen empty, and she wants the world.

 
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