As I write this, Lynne Ramsay is poised to sweep the boards at all major awards shows for her most recent film You Were Never Really Here (2017, although it was given wider release in 2018) — except, of course, no she’s not, for various systemic reasons which are all far too obvious and have been written about widely. Indeed, aside from a single BAFTA nomination, she is not even nominated, which is absurd given how much more directorial flair she has than most other living British directors. Of course, I don’t imagine my keenly amateurish post here will change much, and she’s already well regarded in the critical community, but it’s always worth paying her films some attention. Many other talented women haven’t had the career trajectory of Ramsay, and she’s still only managed to make a film every 6-8 years or so, which is a real shame, but at least it means when they do come they are mostly exquisite. Certainly that most recent film has a taut focus that’s lacking in too much filmmaking, coming in under 90 minutes and with a narrative economy that elides as uninteresting many of the generic conventions she’s working within, instead going straight for a character portrait of a comprehensively broken man.
Broken men (and a few women) have largely been Ramsay’s terrain over her career, starting with that first graduate film “Small Deaths” (1995), a series of vignettes of a young girl being socialised into a world of violence, only extended by “Kill the Day” (1996) and then the Cannes prize-winning “Gasman” (1998), a masterpiece of economy in telling a 15-minute story through the eyes of young children at Christmas as they come to terms with their father’s emotional distance. That’s all amplified in her debut Ratcatcher (1999), which again seems on the surface to be utterly bleak — a 1970s childhood in Glasgow, another emotionally-disconnected dad and a series of desultory incidents that suggest the fragility and pain of life, and of growing up. However, throughout the film, Ramsay brings us back to this almost idyllic fantasy of fields of grass and new-build houses at the edges of the city, that the protagonist James yearns for. This image, along with other little interstitial flourishes, push the film beyond what outwardly seems to be an extension of a 70s-contemporary ‘Play for Today’ style of social realism into a far richer and more rewarding inner life of a character.
The ways in which characters are pulled towards desperate destructive acts on the one hand, but also just as desperately seek a freedom from life’s pains on the other, is I think best exemplified by Morvern Callar (2002), which I might, if I think about it, consider Ramsay’s best film. It’s a literary adaptation and, for a change, focuses on a young woman, though it hardly hurts that such a fine actor as Samantha Morton is in the role. Her Morvern seems to be on a hedonistic trip to embrace and reinvent her life, but throughout it all there’s the body of her dead boyfriend, who has killed himself just before the film opens and whose presence never really leaves her side, and is clear in the way she moves through the film (her work reminds me of an earlier performance, in one-off director Carine Adler’s fantastic 1997 film Under the Skin).
I was never particularly taken with Ramsay’s next film, We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011, another literary adaptation), but with the benefit of hindsight provided by her latest film, I’m inclined to see it as a turn towards a more fierce and unforgiving aesthetic grounded in genre — horror with this and revenge thriller in her latest. There’s a mounting sense of dread that both films sustain admirably well, and both Tilda Swinton and Joaquin Phoenix find themselves spiralling into some psychic dead zone. The darkness is far harder to avoid than in her earlier films, although how much you want to believe either character is beyond redemption is still only hinted at, and therefore at the viewer’s discretion to a certain extent.
In her development as a filmmaker, what I love most about Ramsay — especially in You Were Never Really Here — is her radical, almost austere, rethinking of narrative convention, paring what seem like familiar stories down to their constituent elements to better expose the emotional wiring of her characters. The darkness of these emotional pathologies is balanced by a purity of cinematic expression, and I remain excited for whatever she does next, though I assume we won’t get to see anything until the mid-2020s.
Small Deaths (1995) || Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographers Alwin H. Küchler and Ramsay | Starring Anne McLean, James Ramsay | Length 11 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016
Kill the Day (1996) || Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler | Starring James Ramsay | Length 19 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016
Gasman (1998) || Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler | Starring Lynne Ramsay Jr, Martin Anderson | Length 15 minutes || Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 26 November 2016
Ratcatcher (1999) || Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler | Starring William Eadie, Leanne Mullen, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews | Length 94 minutes || Seen at Paramount, Wellington, Thursday 27 July 2000 (and most recently on DVD at home, London, Sunday 27 January 2019)
Morvern Callar (2002) || Director Lynne Ramsay | Writers Ramsay and Liana Dognini (based on the novel by Alan Warner) | Cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler | Starring Samantha Morton, Kathleen McDermott | Length 97 minutes || Seen at Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Sunday 27 July 2003 (and most recently via streaming at home, London, Thursday 5 April 2018)
We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) || Director Lynne Ramsay | Writers Ramsay and Rory Stewart Kinnear (based on the novel by Lionel Shriver) | Cinematographer Seamus McGarvey | Starring Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller | Length 112 minutes || Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Monday 26 October 2015
Swimmer (2012) || Director Lynne Ramsay | Cinematographer Natasha Braier | Starring Tom Litten | Length 18 minutes || Seen at home (YouTube), London, Thursday 15 November 2018
You Were Never Really Here (2017) || Director/Writer Lynne Ramsay (based on the novella by Jonathan Ames) | Cinematographer Thomas Townend | Starring Joaquin Phoenix | Length 90 minutes || Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Sunday 15 October 2017 (and again at Curzon Aldgate, London, Saturday 17 March 2018)
- BFI (March 2018 feature by Will Massa)
- Little White Lies (March 2018 capsule reviews by Kambole Campbell)
- Village Voice (April 2018 essay by Willow Maclay)
- Seventh Row (October 2018 special issue of features and interviews by Orla Smith and Elena Lazic related to YWNRH) [requires membership]
- Screen Daily (December 2018 interview by Wendy Mitchell)