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Wednesday, January 29, 2003

Only knocks once

Samantha Morton’s wordless portrait of a me-first enigma.

Posted By on Wed, Jan 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM

The first five stunning minutes of Morvern Callar are difficult in their silence — dead except for the electric on-off buzzing of Christmas lights decorating a tree — showing a scantily clad Samantha Morton, looking anything but sexy, communing with the bloody body of a man lying on the floor. The scene raises a thousand questions: Has there been a crime? An accident? A suicide? She keeps touching him, as if to remember something she’s afraid of forgetting. And to go with the intermittent hum of the lights, appropriately the first words of the movie are viewed on a computer screen.

Her boyfriend, James, a struggling novelist who has finally finished his masterpiece, has left her a suicide note instructing her to send the book out to publishing houses and use money in their bank account for his funeral. Each click of the mouse explains the situation in a succinct, unsentimental way that a spoken discussion could barely attempt. It’s just the first of many visual techniques employed by writer-director Lynne Ramsey, who has created from Alan Warner’s novel a movie of wonder, chill, sadness and evolution that focuses on a singular character made well worthy of our attention by Morton’s performance.

Morvern (Morton) dresses and heads out into the cold echoing night of her Scottish coastal town, pausing over her boyfriend to delicately tease a few pound notes out of his back pocket. It’s sweet irony in view of what’s to come, as she takes what she needs and replaces the rest, taking care not to disturb the body. This is about the only time Morvern shows any sign, however slight, of remorse for what she’s doing, or that she might go the expected route and follow James’ final instructions. Morvern has pity and tenderness for those she encounters, but it’s a me-first mentality. She can’t be faulted for that. She deserves it, what with her job as a supermarket shelver, the suicide-boyfriend and her best friend who admits to a fling with him.

After reading and rereading the suicide note, she opens up the computer file containing the novel, gives it a long, hard look, erases James’ name and replaces it with her own. She sends out the novel to the first publishing house on the list he left her, which snaps at the chance to publish it. She heads to the ATM, checks the funeral account balance, and seeing that it contains more than 3,000 pounds, withdraws the funds and buys herself and her boisterous, somewhat stupid friend, Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) — party-hearty yin to Morvern’s yang — a Spanish resort vacation.

Ramsey’s camera twitches and swirls with a human’s imprecise but emotional touch, rarely resting for long once the movie gets rolling. Her song selection is impeccable. But while the images on the screen pulse with sound and color, telling the story far more effectively than dialogue and beating out a strange rhythm of hope and escape, Morvern herself never looks undone. She carves up her lover’s body into manageable pieces while listening to his last will and mix tape; her burial of him on the Scottish highland is a joyful release; and she’s calm as can be as she dupes a publisher into giving her a book deal. (The 100,000 pounds, though, does give her pause). There’s barely a hint of panic, molecularly small, the first time we hear her voice, when (after lying with the body for an indeterminate amount of time) she heads out to the train station and answers a ringing payphone for an oddly perfunctory conversation with a stranger.

Morvern’s motivations are oblique, but there are several possibilities: She never loved James in the first place; she’s detached and numb with grief; she’s crazy, or, most likely, she’s just plain sane, seizing what might be the first opportunity ever to come her way.

Morvern is free in ways that the people she knows in her sad, gray town are not — and when Lana snippily informs her that there’s no point in trying to get away, because things are the same everywhere you go, Morvern says nothing. She’s often silent, as if she knows that words are a silver bullet to the world’s mystery. She knows the truth. She’s seen what the world has to offer, in the solemnity of a Spanish cemetery and the tiny insects that fascinate her. And with that mental clarity come a knowledge and a fortitude of which the huddled masses can’t even conceive.


Opens Wednesday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to


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