Spotlight On: Lynne Ramsay – British Cinema’s Unsung Hero

Adam Feeley

Despite being one of the most acclaimed and accomplished filmmakers in Britain, Lynne Ramsay has only made four feature films, with a noticeable gap between the last two. Why? The answer is easy. She is someone who makes films completely on her own terms, the commander of her creative ship. Each of her four feature films are distinctive and idiosyncratic, moving from a coming-of-age tale to a distraught mother and most recently a beleaguered hitman. And she still has ways to go.

Born and raised in Glasgow, Ramsay first made waves with her debut feature ‘Ratcatcher’ (1999), a haunting, mystical tale about a young boy living in a 1970’s poverty-stricken Glasgow housing estate. The film is littered with dark imagery, combining the tragic with the beautiful, that would come to define her film-making style. An example of this is the opening image of the film which shows on the titular lead wrapping himself with a white curtain, hiding himself from the murky filth that surrounds him. An unconventional coming of age film, Ramsay contrasts the city’s decay with the hopes and dreams of a young boy. The city is palpable, the streets lined with rubbish, the water grey and murky and the surrounding wheat fields golden brown. With ‘Ratcatcher’, Lynne Ramsay arrived.

Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian described Ramsay as “one of the most distinctive talents in British cinema”

Three years later, her most underrated and much less discussed film ‘Morvern Callar’ (2002) was released. The film follows a young woman whose boyfriend commits suicide leaving her his finished but unpublished novel. Struggling with her own identity and general life direction, she publishes the book under her own name. An exploration of grief and identity, the titular Morvern takes the publishing advance and heads to Spain with her best mate. A twisted, off-kilter female liberation film, Morvern parties, takes drugs, lies and yet somehow, we are still drawn to her. Ramsay never portrays her as a cold, calculating opportunist, but a woman on the verge of change. In terms of haunting imagery, the scene where Morvern discovers her boyfriend’s body is particularly discomforting, illuminated by Christmas lights, she lies on the floor with him in near total silence. With this feature, Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian described Ramsay as “one of the most distinctive talents in British cinema.”

With ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ (2011), Ramsay proved she could adapt the seemingly unfilmable novel. Ramsay crafts a disturbing, twisted relationship between a struggling mother and her deranged son. Tilda Swinton as the straining mother is excellent at contrasting her character before and after her son’s crimes. Similar to her other films, violence is present in the story, but Ramsay never lets the violent actions over-take the story. When Kevin eventually commits his atrocities, what make it so terrifying is the audience see’s the immediate before and the immediate after of the act. You never see the actual crime, only snippets. Again, Ramsay plunges deep into the human psyche, painfully illustrating the horror of not only parenthood but particularly motherhood.  

The nine-year gap between her second and third features is noticeable, so what happened between them? She was due to write and direct the film adaptation of ‘The Lovely Bones’ (2009) but left the project due to creative differences. This would occur again a few years later on the western ‘Jane Got A Gun’ (2015). With a large budget and working with genuine movie stars (Natalie Portman and Jude Law) Ramsay was excited for the opportunity, learning to film horses in preparation for the shoot. However, on the first day of scheduled filming, she never showed up, she walked away. Why? The same thing that happened last time. The producers and studio interfering with her vision; they wanted a happy ending and more action as per usual. Ramsay refused. She has proven herself as not only a skilled director but an accomplished one, so why was there a lack of faith in her ability?

She has proven herself as not only a skilled director but an accomplished one

Ramsay describes the fallout from this perfectly in a 2018 Guardian interview titled ‘I’ve got a reputation for being difficult- it’s bullshit.’ This speaks to a wider issue that not only she has experienced but nearly all female directors. If a male director is demanding and difficult, they are a ‘perfectionist’ but a female director gets labelled ‘pushy’ and has their projects wrangled away from them.

Ramsay returned to film with ‘You Were Never Really Here’ (2018). Set in modern-day New York, the film revolves around a hired gun named Joe (played by Joaquin Phoenix) who rescues a young girl from sex trafficking. Drawing comparisons to ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) upon release, the film is not about the man who saves the girl because in many ways she saves him. Ramsay’s visual prowess is on full display, highlighted by a terrific sequence all shown on security cameras and CCTV with the only sound audible being bodies hitting the floor. It’s a terrific showcase for Phoenix but especially Ramsay, the film is pulpy, aggressive but never brooding. As with all her work, the dialogue is sparse, you learn about the character through their movements or flashbacks, she gives you the tools to piece them together yourself.

It’s Ramsay’s way or the highway

At the very least, I hope you check out some of her work. She is distinctive and totally unique and stands her ground against the cogs of the studio system. It’s Ramsay’s way or the highway. ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ and ‘Morvern Callar’ are both available on Netflix and ‘You Were Never Really Here’ is available on Amazon Prime so you really have no excuse.

Adam Feeley

Featured Image courtesy of Craig Duffy via Flickr. Image license found here. No changes made to this image.

In-article trailer 1 courtesy of frompage2screen via youtube.com. No changes made to this video.

In-article trailer 2 courtesy of Ryland Walker Knight via youtube.com. No changes made to this video. 

In-article trailer 3 courtesy of Movieclips Trailers via youtube.com. No changes made to this video. 

In-article trailer 4 courtesy of Amazon Studios via youtube.com. No changes made to this video.

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