Unsung Auteurs: Lynne Ramsay

September 1, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: Scottish-born Lynne Ramsay, who helmed Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin.

Writer/director Lynne Ramsay is certainly no unknown quantity. Her movies premiere at major film festivals, she’s done reams of press, her work has received critical acclaim and provoked discussion, and she’s frequently featured on lists of female filmmakers currently making waves in the world of cinema. But that said, the true originality and uncompromising artistry of Lynne Ramsay still remains under celebrated. A director with a bold, singular vision (if not a highly prolific output, for all manner of reasons, many beyond her control), Lynne Ramsay should be duly mentioned whenever discussion is opened about the freshest talents behind the camera, and not just the freshest female ones.

Lynne Ramsay was born in 1969 in Glasgow, Scotland. 1969. She studied fine art and photography at Napier College, Edinburgh, but eventually shifted her interest to film after being inspired by Maya Deren’s classic experimental work Meshes Of The Afternoon. Originally focused solely on cinematography, Ramsay embraced directing, and in 1995 graduated from The National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England, where she specialised in cinematography and direction. Ramsay’s gifts were acknowledged early, with her 1996 graduation student film Small Deaths awarded the Cannes Prix De Jury prize. A gritty tale of family dysfunction, Ramsay followed Small Deaths with the equally tough minded shorts Kill The Day (about a heroin addict) and Gasman (a haunting family story).

Lynne Ramsay

Drawing in part from her own experiences, Ramsay made her stunning debut in 1999 with the gut-wrenching Ratcatcher, a spiritual descendant of Ken Loach’s Kes that depicts the grim, poverty-stricken horrors of Glasgow’s public housing system in the 1970s with a steely, unforgiving but incredibly artful eye. Told from the perspective of twelve-year-old James (William Eadie delivers a truly wondrous performance), Ratcatcher is one of the great coming of age dramas, rich with emotion and sadness, but shot and constructed with a real sense of poetry by Ramsay, who directs with such confidence and assurance that it’s difficult to believe this is a debut feature.

“A lot of people have misconstrued this film as social realism and I don’t think it is,” Lynne Ramsay told Indiewire. “I try to avoid some of the cliches of that. To be honest, I was trying to go into the psychology of the scenes, going into why we’re shooting this way, why we’re looking at it that way, trying to get under the skin of it a bit, inside the boy’s head. It’s a bit of a risky thing to do because essentially we’re using non-traditional actors, so you go from this kind of harsh reality into something that’s much more hard to pin down. It’s more unreal, I guess. It’s almost like two opposing styles. Don’t ask where that comes from…I think it’s something I realise I’ve developed in my shorts.”

Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar.

Ramsay built on the brilliance of Ratcatcher with her 2002 follow-up feature, Morvern Callar, based on Alan Warner’s striking 1995 novel of the same name. When Morvern’s (Samantha Morton in a performance of transcendent brilliance) boyfriend commits suicide, he leaves behind a novel manuscript and a note on his body advising Morvern on the publishers to contact. This note also explains that he has left money in a bank account that Morvern is to use for his funeral. Morvern simply changes the name on the manuscript and subs her own. She then takes the money and swaps her grimy Scottish existence of supermarket shifts and druggy nights for something far more adventurous and life changing. Ramsay transforms Warner’s book into a work of carefully orchestrated and utterly intoxicating impressionism. It’s an arrhythmic, over-saturated ocean of audio-visual textures and it sucks you into its ebb tide absolutely. If the power of Ratcatcher wasn’t enough in itself, Morvern Callar made Ramsay’s brilliance as a director undeniable.

“I just think Lynne’s a genius, she’s so special,” Samantha Morton told FilmInk upon the release of Morvern Callar. “The thing about Lynne is that whether she was a movie maker, doing her photographs, or painting, she’s just a true artist. She has utter respect for everything that she is doing. You listen to her talk about films, or sound, or colour…I could listen to her talk all day. It’s beautiful to be around. Lynne is also very precise about what she wants and that’s a great experience for an actress. She was like some mad composer defining and tuning the composition and my movement.”

Lynne Ramsay on the set of We Need To Talk About Kevin with Tilda Swinton.

After working for a long period of time on an adaptation of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones (Ramsay would eventually leave the project, to be replaced by Peter Jackson), Ramsay returned to the screen in 2011 with We Need To Talk About Kevin. A profoundly shocking and deeply disturbing adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s equally unsettling novel, Tilda Swinton’s raw and wholly uncompromising performance drives the film, which tracks in horrifying detail a mother’s inability to show and experience love for her unusual son, whose strange behaviour as a child morphs into an apocalyptic nightmare when he hits adolescence. Played as a teen by the amazing Ezra Miller (we shall not enter into any discussion of this performer’s current off-screen behaviour), the film eventually becomes one of the most tragic and emotionally lacerating mother-and-son films ever made. This utterly unforgettable work also includes the most cringe-inducing (and excruciatingly funny) office staff party ever committed to film.

“One of the subtexts is the façade of the functioning American family,” Lynne Ramsay told The Guardian upon the release of We Need To Talk About Kevin. “The parents don’t act, because to act would be to admit that their family is a charade. I actually wanted to call the film ‘Performance’. That’s what it’s essentially about – façade and performance. The dad is looking away, the mum is not quite there, and the son is playing them against each other. It’s the essential family drama taken to terrible extremes.”

Lynne Ramsay with Joaquin Phoenix on the set of You Were Never Really Here.

Amidst much controversy, Ramsay walked off the 2015 feminist western Jane Got A Gun (she had warred with the producers and financiers over the necessity of a much contested happy ending, amongst other things), to be replaced by Gavin O’Connor (Warrior). After a huge back-and-forth which ended up in court, Ramsay’s reputation was burned somewhat, with the director labelled a “troublemaker” in some circles and the recipient of a swathe of accusations levelled by the film’s producers. “I was really devastated,” Ramsay later said of her decision to leave the western. “I really wanted to make the film. It was a hard decision to walk away, but it was becoming a different movie. In my head, I made it. That was a tough time…I wouldn’t bullshit about that.”

Ramsay retreated from the horrors of her experience on Jane Got A Gun by writing a screenplay based on Jonathan Ames’ novel You Were Never Really Here. Eventually released in 2017, the film was another bruising masterwork from Ramsay. The story of an emotionally scarred and mother-fixated war veteran who now specialises in liberating enslaved girls from sex trafficking rings, the film is every bit as violent, upsetting and uncompromising as you would imagine Ramsay’s take on the material to be. When combined with the magisterial performance of Joaquin Phoenix (does any director have a better strike rate when it comes to getting the absolute best out of unconventional actors than Ramsay?), the explosive subject matter really torches the screen. No Charles Bronson-style exercise in revenge-driven bloodletting, You Were Never Really Here is really a film about loneliness, isolation and disconnectedness…though Phoenix’s inspired work with a hammer is better than most things you’ll see in violent action cinema. Why this amazing film wasn’t heralded in the same way as the works of, say, Nicolas Winding Refn is anybody’s guess.

Lynne Ramsay with Joaquin Phoenix on the set of You Were Never Really Here.

“I didn’t want it to be a knight-in-shining-armour story,” Ramsay told Film Comment. I think what’s there is the spirit of the character; he loves his mum, and he’s darkly suicidal. Joaquin and I wanted to make this character very unexpected…you don’t know what he’s going to do next. I’m really interested in turning the clichés of the character inside out. So he’s a totally fallible man, he’s not successful at his mission. He can’t save himself, he can’t even kill himself…but then you start seeing it as a sort of Lazarus story, about a guy who doesn’t want to exist, coming back to life in some way through trauma.”

Powerful, daring and artful to the extreme, Lynne Ramsay’s films are dark, dark journeys into the ravages of the human soul leavened with gallows humour and mordant wit; she has four incredible works on her resume, and should be regarded as a true poet of the moving image. “She’s the real McCoy,” Tilda Swinton once said of Lynne Ramsay. “She is one of those rare directors who creates the kind of films that just would not be there if she didn’t make them.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Vernon Zimmerman, Lisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.