You Were Never Really Here, only Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature film as director, comes nearly 20 years after the sensation of her debut release, Ratcatcher (1999). That trickle of productivity has its provenance in a variety of causes. There were the lost years involved in protracted development over films that eventually went to other directors, The Lovely Bones and Jane Got a Gun. There is her own intransigence and perfectionism as an artist that leads to her projects becoming long and painstaking processes (let’s not forget, she writes her own screenplays too). Then there’s her famous unwillingness to kowtow to the “bullshitters and backstabbers” of the film business – people who, sadly, too often hold the lock and key to the industry’s finances. In that regard, Ramsay’s in good company. Traditionally, Britain’s most exacting and radical of film practitioners – Terence Davies, Peter Greenaway and Ken Russell to name but a few – have found themselves on the wrong side of the nation’s industry honchos. Ramsay seems to have solved her problem by casting her eyes to the States – an artistic blank canvas that better suits her sensibilities than the British film industry’s dominant and homogenous power base of Oxbridgians, Etonians and Harrovians.
For although Ramsay’s work can dabble in sly political overtones (think the socialist compassion of Ratcatcher), she is much more of an interior filmmaker: a crafter of moods and a poet of transcendent personal pathology. And never has her signature been in better evidence than in her sophomore effort, Morvern Callar (2002). It’s often forgotten amid the previously mentioned plaudits garnered by Ratcatcher, then her celebrated adaptation, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), but Morvern Callar has a strong claim as one of British cinema’s finest achievements of the noughties.
Coming in at a lean 97 minutes, its experiential quality and elliptical sensibility have led to a slew of identikit filmmakers in British cinema – all dabbling in what one would loosely term ‘poetic realism’: Clio Barnard, Duane Hopkins, Andrea Arnold and Paddy Considine are some that immediately spring to mind. Clio Barnard in particular is one of the clearest disciples of the Ramsay style, but as her clunky and overly allusive latest release, Dark River, reveals – dealing in poetics is a tricky task, particularly if you can’t resist a nibble from the narrative cake. Ironically, Samantha Morton (the compelling lead actress of Morvern Callar) has proved the closest spiritual cousin to Ramsay with her underrated paean to a girl’s bouncing around Nottingham’s social services in 2009’s The Unloved.
It is the opening to Morvern Callar that is particularly iconic and resonant. Detailing the titular character waking up one morning over the Christmas period to find her boyfriend has committed suicide, Ramsay embarks on a near wordless 12-minute stretch where we, as well as Morvern herself, are left to piece together the enormity of what has happened. Amid a hypnotic backdrop of flashing Christmas lights – it’s easily the most slyly informative use of Christmas insignia since Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999) – Morvern takes the decision to continue living her life without declaring her boyfriend’s deceased state, and, indeed, removes all evidence of it. By showing Morvern processing her boyfriend’s suicide in an entirely interior way, Ramsay decontextualises the morality of her lead’s actions, meaning that Ramsay doesn’t need to get bogged down in genre machinations. The narration submits to the sensitised state that Morvern retreats into as she embarks on what could loosely be described as a personal epiphany whereby she co-opts her boyfriend’s money and unpublished novel to go on an extended holiday to a Spanish island.
Ramsay’s pictorial eye absolutely revels in the stunning rhetorical contrast between Morvern’s metaphorically wintry and enclosed Scottish hometown to the scorched whites and panoptic possibilities of her Spanish retreat. Some of the sequences on the island are incredible. Morvern going clubbing is one of the best cinematic nightclub evocations, and, just generally, the warmth and sensuality of the island seem to be representative of an inner hinterland of rebirth that Morvern is traversing, as well as a literal place where her life begins to take shape again. It wouldn’t be completely fanciful to propose Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue (1993) as a kindred spirit to Morvern Callar, being a narrative that also sensually propels its female protagonist from tragedy to a profound inner process of self-determination. If it all sounds terribly serious, then, in a sense, it is, as Ramsay is that rare breed: a British filmmaker who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of contemporary cinema’s arthouse titans. Ramsay does have a nice turn in gallows humour though, and Morvern Callar has to be one of the best films at subtly lampooning the “Brits abroad” phenomenon.
But more importantly, Ramsay also stands as exemplar of the growing need to recognise the staggering quality of female-envisioned cinema that currently exists. Generally not receiving the same recognition and esteem as today’s top male directors, the likes of Lynne Ramsay, Lucrecia Martel, Claire Denis, Sofia Coppola and Mia Hansen-Løve are producing a calibre of artful, refined and highly sensual cinema that very few of their male counterparts can hold a candle to.