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Wednesday, March 12, 2003

A 'Stranger' in Scotland

Movern Callar

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Running time: 97 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing

It's Christmas morning in "Smalltown," Scotland. You're a 21-year-old girl working a dead-end job at a local supermarket. You wake up in the flat you share with your thirtysomething writer-boyfriend and discover that he's committed suicide. His body lies inconveniently in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room. What do you do?

News photo
Samantha Morton in "Morvern Callar"

If you're Morvern (Samantha Morton) in "Morvern Callar," you don't scream, weep or call the police. Grief in this movie is depicted simply as an intensely individual and intimate thing, completely remote from the politics of what other people deem to be a suitable reaction to tragic loss.

There's no music during this opening scene: The camera silently follows Morvern as she first stares at the corpse, then lies down next to it as if to convince herself that her boyfriend is really dead. She reads the suicide note in his computer ("It just seems like the right thing to do") and scrolls down to his last request: to print out a certain manuscript and send it to a publisher. Then she proceeds to tear open the gifts he's left under their little plastic Christmas tree (the reflection of the tree's feeble red lights blink on her boyfriend's backside), which consist of: a calfskin jacket; a Walkman; and a tape titled "Music For You." Later, she showers and shaves her legs, puts on a little black dress, dons the new jacket and heads off to a Christmas party.

"Morvern Callar" is that rare cinematic specimen: a beautifully crafted and insightful adaptation of an award-winning novel. When the book by Alan Warner was published several years ago, it was immediately pegged as a contemporary version of Albert Camus' "The Stranger" -- which also kicks off with the death of a loved one: An aged mother dies and her son, Meursault, cannot bring himself to display any outward signs of grief. During the vigil, he drinks coffee and smokes and, after the burial, he goes to the beach with a new girlfriend.

But, whereas Meursault in 1942 goes on to commit a motiveless murder and is punished, Morvern in 2002 succeeds in reinventing her life. She doesn't tell anyone of the suicide, passes off the manuscript as her own and disposes of the body. She uses her boyfriend's credit card to treat herself and best mate Lanna (Kathleen McDermott) to a holiday in Spain. Oh, and in the meantime, a London publisher is ecstatic about the novel and offers her a lucrative book deal.

Contrary to how this sounds, Morvern is neither mean nor coldblooded. She's defined by the small desires carried along in her stream of consciousness: to go on a trip where it's warm and sunny, to meticulously do her nails, to make love with a good-looking stranger, to buy a new dress, get drunk, work on her tan. Morvern doesn't care very much about anything except the next nice sensation. But she pursues sensations the way a Zen monk may pursue words -- both are aware that salvation lies elsewhere and so remain detached from the object of their pursuits. And all the while, the Walkman is plugged in and she's listening to the tape her boyfriend left her: the only visible hint of her feelings for him.

Which brings up the question: What is Morvern feeling? This is never fully explained since Morvern says very little throughout, but certain actions of hers are telling. Morvern comes out of the Christmas party, stands on a riverbank where a barge is passing and suddenly lifts up her dress, exposing herself to the the shocked boatman; when she dismembers her boyfriend's body in the bathtub (with an electric saw), she turns her headset on full volume and afterward sprays deodorizer all over the flat. These things reveal certain slivers of her inner landscape: She's obviously suffering, but she's also very practical and knows how to look after herself, no doubt the result of her foster-home upbringing, mentioned several times in the story.

The will to get on with life and grab any available moments of happiness override her instincts for poetic self-pity. And this is where Morvern parts ways from Meursault. Though both insist on protecting their emotional privacy, Meursault makes his insistence a political mission (to the point where he refuses to defend himself in court) while Morvern is shrewd enough to play along with societal conventions.

Morton's performance as Morvern is extraordinary: Unaided by dialogue and with her features almost always composed, she reveals Morvern's emotional depth, then quickly hides it like a treasure. She keeps us wondering and guessing, and her very elusiveness pulls the story along to an unpredictable and satisfying end. Offering a compelling contrast to Morton is first-time actress McDermott as Lanna. Next to the silent and reflective Morvern, Lanna is all-too transparent: silly, catty and hard-as-nails. She's the kind of girl who sleeps with Morvern's boyfriend, then "confesses" the fact after Morvern tells her "he's gone away." With a best friend like her, it's not surprising that Morvern prefers to recede into her shell, impenetrable from the outside world, the music of her boyfriend's tape filling her ears.

Morvern's loneliness is devastating, but somehow she remains intact, giving hope that her journey isn't over yet, that somewhere along the way she'll find . . . what? Love? Real friendship? The honesty and integrity of "Morvern Callar" lies in the fact that such questions are never answered.

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