Of the filmmakers to emerge in the late 1990s in Britain, Lynne Ramsay is probably one of the most original and provocative filmmakers of her generation. From 1996 to 2002, Ramsay had already made three short films and two feature films that garnered lots of acclaim and accolades. After that, not much happened following plans to develop Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones that fell apart once the involvement of New Zealand blockbuster filmmaker Peter Jackson got involved. This would lead to a nine-year break between films as the interest towards Ramsay grew in the intervening years where she has finally returned in 2011 with her third feature film in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland on December 5, 1969, Lynne Ramsay was just an artist with an interest in film where she graduated at the National Film and Television School in 1995. During her years in film school, she was learning to be a camera operator as it grew more into her wanting to take control of her own work. The training she would receive would lead to a trio of acclaimed short films that would help bring buzz to an emerging artist.
Small Deaths/Kill the Day/Gasman
Ramsay’s career would begin with a trio of award-winning shorts that would reveal the themes that Ramsay would explore throughout her career. While short films often be the starting point for emerging directors to hone their craft. Ramsay’s shorts would show a vision that was unique and felt very new to the world of cinema. Particularly for the way children are portrayed as well as its themes pertaining to death and loss.
Ramsay’s first short Small Deaths is about three different characters named Anne Marie in three different stories each relating to some encounter with loss. One about a girl having to see her dad leave for work unsure if he’s coming back while another involve two young sisters at a cow field where they see a cow die. The third involves a woman being the victim of a sick prank involving a heroin overdose. The short display an example of what Ramsay would do as a director in the way she portrays different themes as well as a style that was engaging and playful as the 1995 short won Ramsay the Jury Prize short at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
Kill the Day is about a drug addict’s struggle to stay clean shows a much looser style in the way Ramsay tells the film in terms of its narrative and directing style. The short would feature an array of editing styles and visual cues that Ramsay would hone in the years to come as she gained key collaborators in editor Lucia Zuchetti, cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler, and set designer Jane Morton for this period. The short also showed how Ramsay can take a grim subject like drug addiction and loss by finding some form of beauty into the storytelling in the way she used flashbacks for the addict character as he reflects on his childhood. The short would win Ramsay another Jury Prize short at the 1997 Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival.
Ramsay’s third short Gasman would be the culmination of her previous shorts as it told the story of two siblings going to a Christmas party with their father where they meet two other kids who is revealed to be their half-siblings. Presented in a visual style that is almost like a home movie and shown from the perspective of a young girl. There is also a tone of the film that is much looser as the actors seem to improvise in the short in the way Ramsay chooses to direct her actors. The short would have Ramsay return to Cannes in 1998 where she would another short film Jury Prize as well as a BAFTA Scotland award for Best Short.
The three shorts would help create buzz for Ramsay as she was approached by studios in Britain to create a feature. Notably as she had gained support from those that had seen and praised her shorts with many wondering what she would do with a feature film. In the years since, her shorts would play to her status as one of Britain’s top directors as they’re continually seen by film buffs.
With the goodwill she’s gained from her shorts, Ramsay was asked by studios to create a treatment for a feature film that would eventually become her first feature film about a young boy dealing with guilt in 1973 Glasgow during a garbage strike. Entitled Ratcatcher, the film would mark the start of one of the most promising careers from a new filmmaker.
With her collaborators, Ramsay chose to create a film filled with unknowns which included Tommy Flanagan from Kill the Day as the father and Ramsay’s daughter Lynne Jr. as the daughter. For the role of the film’s protagonist James, Ramsay chose William Eadie in the part as he plays this boy whose innocence is shattered by the death of a friend during a playful fight that wasn’t violent at all. In this approach to the story, Ramsay chooses to follow this boy as he befriends an older girl whom he starts to discover the world of sex in a very innocent manner.
Since the film is also a period piece set in 1973 Glasgow during a garbage strike, Ramsay finds beauty amidst this very grimy world of trash and rats that surrounds the location as if the place seems hellish but the people living there seems quite content about it. Ramsay’s direction is quite stylish for the way the drama plays out that includes some very tender moments involving James’ parents where they dance to Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid which would show Ramsay’s gift for her use of music in film.
Another key moment of that use in music is a very playful, fantasy scene of a mouse being tied to a balloon as it goes way up in the air to the moon to the tune of Carl Orff’s Gassenhauser that is known largely for being the musical theme from Terrence Malick’s 1973 debut film Badlands. In an interview for the film’s DVD, Ramsay admit that she just wanted to use the piece though people told her that she shouldn’t do it because it’s already done in a famous film. Yet, it’s part of Ramsay’s genius for the way she can use something that is already known but make it fresh as the film itself does have a very Malickian influence in scenes where James is running around a wheat field. This mixture of dream-like beauty in a decayed setting filled with trash gives Ratcatcher a tone that seems very unique that isn’t seen much from any director that is just starting out.
The film made its premiere at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival in its Un Certain Regard section to great acclaim while opening the Edinburgh International Film Festival that year. Despite a very limited release in the U.K. and U.S., the film would give Ramsay numerous accolades from numerous critics and festival prizes. For Lynne Ramsay, the acclaim she had received from her shorts and in Ratcatcher was just the beginning of her flourishing career.
Ramsay’s sophomore feature would be an adaptation of Alan Warner’s 1995 novel Morvern Callar about a woman who finds her boyfriend dead of a suicide as she takes his finished manuscript and puts her name on it while going on a trip to Ibiza with a friend. The film would be a turning point for Ramsay as she employed a much looser style of storytelling as she collaborated with Liana Dogini to co-write the script. The film also marked a departure for Ramsay as she chose to have someone famous to play the titular character rather than an unknown as Samantha Morton was cast to play the part.
With newcomer Kathleen McDermott in the supporting role of Morvern’s friend Lanna, Ramsay chooses to go for a more grittier and free-flowing style in terms of its look and flow than in the more dream-like tone of Ratcatcher. Notably the scene of a New Year’s Eve party where Alwin H. Kuchler’s photography has a grainy yet vibrant look to it that is heightened with more colored palettes in the Ibiza scenes. Still, there is a sense of controlled camera work and direction such as the way the camera follows Morvern as she walks towards it at a supermarket to the tune of Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra’s Some Velvet Morning.
Since the film, like Ratcatcher, is an exploration on death and guilt along with the actions and choices the protagonists make. Unlike Ratcatcher, which explored a boy’s confusion over the role he played in accidentally killing a boy. The choices of Morvern Callar are much more ambiguous into the way she reacts to her boyfriend’s suicide and the decisions she made regarding his unpublished book that he just finished. What is more compelling throughout the film is the fact that Ramsay chooses not to judge Morvern for what she does such as chopping her boyfriend’s body and burying it somewhere while taking whatever money he had to go on a trip to Ibiza with Lanna.
The trip to Ibiza and other towns in Spain would eventually become a turning point for Morvern in the way she’s reacting to grief along with an overwhelming offer that she has received for the book that she claims to have written. The looseness of the film becomes more prevalent as there’s less dialogue that appears where Ramsay is clearly experimenting more with long scenes that don’t involve music nor any kind of sound. There is a dream-like quality to some of those scenes while Lucia Zuchetti’s editing creates crazy montages for the surreal moments in the Ibiza scenes that play up to Morvern’s sense of grief that she’s dealing with.
One of the key elements that makes the film so engaging to watch is Samantha Morton’s performance. Unlike the naturalness of the non-actors that Ramsay was able to capture in her previous work, Morton adds a dynamic that is very entrancing to the way she portrays this woman’s grief. Since a lot of the performance is mostly silent, it allows both Ramsay and Morton to explore a character in her grief as she continues to lose herself through everything she does. The film’s ending which has Morvern in a club where everyone else is dancing while she has her earphones listening to the Mamas and the Papas’ Dedicated to the One I Love as she is moving in slow motion is truly one of the most gorgeous shots ever presented in film.
The film premiered at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival where it would win two prizes while the film would also receive a British Independent Film Best Actress prize to Samantha Morton and a Scottish BAFTA Best Actress prize to Kathleen McDermott. Despite having a limited release, the film increased Ramsay’s reputation as she was becoming one of Britain’s finest directors as her cult started to grow worldwide. By this point, Ramsay seemed to be on the verge of bigger things to come but it eventually led to a nine-year break between feature films.
AMBER commercial/The Doves-Black & White Town music video
The clout that Lynne Ramsay received for her two films gave her the chance to adapt one of the top bestselling novels at the time in Alice Sebold’s 2002 novel The Lovely Bones. The story of a young girl’s murder as the girl tries to help her mourning family to try and catch her killer. The story definitely fit in with Ramsay’s theme on death as she and her Morvern Callar co-screenwriter Liana Dogini began to write the project in 2002 though Ramsay’s involvement began in 2001 just before the novel had come out when studios discovered its unpublished manuscript. With filming set to happen in the summer of 2003, it all came crashing down when Dreamworks Studio and Steven Spielberg expressed interest in doing an adaptation on Sebold’s book.
Ramsay was forced out of the project as it eventually became a 2009 film directed by Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings trilogy films. The film eventually received lukewarm reviews as Ramsay expressed her views on Jackson’s film in a 2011 interview where she thought Jackson’s film wasn’t very good. During that period Ramsay was working on The Lovely Bones, she directed a commercial that starred Samantha Morton for the AMBER unplanned pregnancy counseling. The commercial had an entrancing style that followed Morton as a woman in peril which indicated the sadness of unplanned pregnancy without any kind of social motives and such.
Another project Ramsay in the aftermath of The Lovely Bones failure was a music video for the British band Doves and their song Black & White Town which returned Ramsay to the world of children that she explored in Ratcatcher. While the original video was re-edited by the band’s label without her consent, the original version was able to be seen at the website for the Academy British film group that reflects Ramsay’s own vision.
While these projects were stop-gap releases for the filmmaker, the long absence would only increase her cult where in 2007, the British publication The Guardian named Ramsay as one of the world’s 40 best filmmakers at number 12. Despite that accolade, many wondered if Ramsay would ever return with a new film.
Following the fallout of The Lovely Bones, Ramsay got involved in the adaptation of another book in Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. Shriver’s novel was about a woman reflecting on her life as a mother to a boy who would end up killing students in his school. With help from American filmmaker Steven Soderbergh as an executive producer, Ramsay chose to take part in the film in 2006 through its development and financial struggles took the process much longer to do. Once actress Tilda Swinton came on board to star and help produce the film in 2009, production was able to gain ground for a 2010 shoot.
In Ramsay’s approach to telling the story of a woman, who is the unreliable narrator, dealing with the guilt of her son’s action. Ramsay chooses to create a narrative that shifts back and forth to emphasize this woman’s recollection of her life with her child while struggling to maintain a normal life. In this approach to the narrative, Ramsay brings an ambiguity to this exploration of guilt as she offers to ask more questions rather than gives answers in the film. Notably towards the end as Tilda Swinton’s Eva asks her soon to be incarcerated son Kevin (Ezra Miller) about why did he do what he did. Kevin’s response is one of confusion and sadness considering the troubled and complex relationship between mother and son.
Ramsay’s style is still evident in the tricks she had done with her previous films but there’s something different to her approach with this film. Her use of music such as blues and country play to the emotions of what Eva is feeling while there’s also something very unsettling in the way she uses Buddy Holly’s Everyday to a scene of Eva driving at night to a street where it’s Halloween and kids are trick-or-treating. Another moment in the film that happens early is when the film flashes back to a period in Eva’s pre-Kevin life where she’s at the La Tomatina festival in Spain where this mix of squished tomatoes presented in slow-motion as Eva is carried by thousands of people. What the scene doesn’t show is that sense of excitement due to the sound which is playing something that is far more horrifying over the chaos over what Kevin does.
Ramsay’s direction is also different for the way she presents suburban family life as it’s the first film of hers not to be set in the U.K. While most films of American suburbia has this mix of outer beauty with something inside that is very dark. Ramsay doesn’t go for that because the home that Eva lives in for its present sequence is a mess in and out as she is ostracized by people. At one point, there’s a scene where she’s in a supermarket as she hides from a shooting victim’s mother and when she’s to check out. Her eggs had already been smashed yet she still takes it so she can evade more trouble from this woman that really wants to kill her. It’s Ramsay’s emphasizing Eva’s own alienation as she is lost in her own hell while having to take the guilt for being responsible in having a son that is a psychopath.
The film finally premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival to great acclaim as it signified Ramsay’s return following her long, nine-year hiatus from the big screen. The film would also receive acclaim from critics in Britain and the U.S. as Ramsay’s name was becoming more prominent than ever.
Despite having a short filmography of three shorts and three feature films from 1996 to 2011, Lynne Ramsay has managed to create something that a lot of filmmakers would love to have. With her long-awaited return finally yielding another great film in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the question is what will she do next? Plus, will she make fans wait another nine years? Only time will tell yet the material she’s already made so far has made her a filmmaker that film buffs will definitely want to keep looking out for. Particularly with female filmmakers that can bring something different to the table as Lynne Ramsay is one of those group of women who are the best at what they do in the art of making films.
© thevoid99 2011
I have heard great things about Ratcatcher, and of course, Kevin is superb.
I would totally recommend seeing Ratcatcher and get that Criterion DVD. The shorts in there are just absolute gems.
I use Wikipedia on my sources but other than that. I just watch the films and the special features. If you're going to use my essay. I will need some credit but I would suggest to watch the films. That's the only way you will need to understand anything about Lynne Ramsay's work.
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