Hello again everyone, and welcome to the column you can safely explore. Following last year's rather dismal attempt at a Valentine's Day-themed column I was hoping to look this week at P.T. Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love, but unfortunately its small-scale release means a print has yet to make it to the bucolic backwater where I reside. And so, rather unexpectedly, let's take a look at how two different extremes of modern cinema - arthouse and blockbuster - treat
a rather similar theme.
My friends and colleagues have all rumbled to the fact that I visit the cinema only slightly less frequently than the water closet and have taken to regularly enquiring if there's anything good coming out soon, or indeed if I've seen anything interesting recently. We were having one such conversation the other day and I mentioned I was off to see Lynne Ramsay's Morvern Callar, starring Samantha Morton.
'Oh, yeah, her,' said my friend dubiously. 'Everyone keeps saying what a good actress she is but I've only ever seen her in Minority Report' - as astute a comment on her performance as Agatha the pre-cog as ever I've heard. And indeed to some extent Morton's enviable reputation has not really been backed up by her high-profile roles - but anyone doubting her talent should hustle along to Morvern Callar with all the alacrity at their disposal.
Based on the novel by Alan Warner, Ramsay's film opens where most movies I'd think about going to see would be more likely to conclude: a young woman wakes up on Christmas morning, next to the corpse of her boyfriend. The woman is Morvern Callar (Morton), English but living
in Scotland. Her boyfriend has committed suicide but thoughtfully left Morvern her Christmas presents, money to arrange his funeral, and the manuscript of his novel. Morvern tells no-one what has happened, and tries to go on with her life as usual, partying, working in a supermarket,
spending time with her peers. But eventually she decides to put her own name on the novel and
send it to a publisher, before using the funeral money to go on a grim Club 18-30-style package
holiday with her (really quite annoying) best friend Lanna (Kathleen McDermott).
This is another of those hard-to-do-justice-in-a-synopsis films. There really isn't very much
of a plot going on here, just (on paper) a cool, almost forensic dissection of the minutiae of
Morvern's life in Scotland and the desperate hedonism she encounters in Spain. At one point it
really does seem that the story has ground to a complete halt and that all we're seeing are a
series of disconnected vignettes. But this doesn't last long and in the end it becomes clear that
Ramsay's film is making a point about the transcendent power of fantasy and the imagination,
albeit in a slightly subversive way. Most of the time the film is grimly naturalistic, but this is
coupled with a painterly eye behind the camera. Morvern Callar is beautiful to watch
even when dealing with potentially ugly subject matter, surely a sign of real art. But Ramsay
also creates bravura moments of pure cinema, most often through careful use of the soundtrack:
the naturalistic clatter giving way to clear, dead silence or reverberating music.
While the non-professional McDermott gives an assured performance, this film is Samantha
Morton's from start to finish. Morvern frequently acts in a way that seems either insensitive or
actually irrational, but Morton imbues her with such an aura of guileless ethereality that she is
never less than believable: you don't always understand why she does the things she does, but
you never doubt that she does have reasons. And beyond this, Morvern remains not only
believable but also sympathetic, even likeable, a not inconsiderable achievement given that she
is arguably at best a complete space cadet and at worst a self-obsessed, delusional criminal.
This performance of Morton's is every bit as deserving of praise and note as those currently
attracting attention and awards nominations.
Some films are unjustly incarcerated in their art-house ghetto or in a late-night slot on
BBC2, and Morvern Callar is one of them. It's not perfect, and I admit it's almost
certainly not going to be everyone's cup of tea (hmm, I said almost exactly the same thing about
Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, come to think of it), but I would urge you to seek it
out and give it a try on the big screen. It's a quiet film, but a deeply memorable one.
Leo the Lyin'
Another young person with mendacity issues is the subject of Steven Spielberg's Catch
Me If You Can, but in this case the story is true. This is the story of Frank W. Abagnale
Jr, who as a teenager earned a reputation as the most audacious conman in US history. He is
played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who convincingly ages about twelve years in the course of the
Abagnale's story would be dismissed as hopelessly farfetched were one to suggest it as a
work of fiction: following a relatively normal childhood, the traumatic divorce of his parents
led him to run away from home and begin a career as a passer of forged cheques. This in turn
led to him successfully passing himself off as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer (his Sean
Connery impression is less convincing). Of course a lifestyle such as this, which eventually saw
Abagnale fraudulently making millions of dollars, was bound to attract the attention of the
authorities, and in Frank's case nemesis takes the unlikely shape of dogged FBI investigator
Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks) who pursues him around America and the world, the two forming a
strangely personal bond in the process...
With Spielberg, DiCaprio, and Hanks on board, expectations were obviously going to be high
for this movie. And so I am delighted to report that Catch Me If You Can is an
absolutely wonderful piece of entertainment, not too deep or heavy but just an expertly made,
perfectly judged drama with comic overtones. Leo is much, much better here than he was in
Gangs of New York: the combination of charm, bravado, and vulnerability which is his
speciality is perfect for Frank. This is another example of a character that on paper seems like
a nasty piece of work, but the deft script and Leo's performance keep you feeling and rooting
for him right up to the closing credits. And this makes Tom Hanks' performance as Hanratty all
the more impressive, as somehow he manages to remain equally sympathetic. This is mostly down
to shrewd use of Hanks' star persona, which as ever is largely composed of a hefty chunk of
The two stars receive perfectly judged support from a great supporting cast. Christopher
Walken plays Frank Sr., and to be fair to him he's no less plausible as Leo's dad than Liam
Neeson, Gene Hackman or any of the other actors who've preceded him. He gives a subtle,
affecting performance in a relatively small but pivotal role. Taking time off from showing
Dubya how the President ought to behave, Martin Sheen is good as one of Frank's dupes, and
rising star Jennifer Garner (more on whom in next week's column, fingers crossed) has a
You can almost sense Spielberg relaxing and letting his hair down on this film, after the
rather weightier and darker movies he's made over the couple of years. He is the master
entertainer of modern cinema and his storytelling here is virtually flawless: it's moving, funny,
and tense, with Frank's strained relationship with his father clearly indicated as the trigger for
his crimes. Not that they're presented as such - there's a sense of barely suppressed glee as
each new scheme of Frank's comes to fruition. The contrast between Leo's playboy lifestyle and
Hanratty's much more humdrum existence is neatly evoked - at one point a night of passion for
Leo is juxtaposed with a disastrous trip to the laundrette for his adversary. The nostalgic
nature of the tale helps keep it light, something played up to by the excellent, retro-styled
opening title sequence. John Williams does his usual sterling work on the score, even if bits of it
sound suspiciously like parts of his music for Attack of the Clones.
Some films are unfairly dismissed in the eyes of certain critics simply because they're
intended as pieces of pure entertainment and I really think this is one of them. Superbly made
in every respect, and enthralling from start to finish, Catch Me If You Can should stand
as a career highlight for all involved. Unreservedly recommended.