Glasgow 2021: Murmur review


Murmur – a patient, probing, profoundly moving exploration of one woman’s battle against past demons and crippling loneliness – announces first-time writer-director Heather Young as a voice for the future. The Nova Scotian filmmaker’s debut feature demonstrates compassionate, composed storytelling, that is matched by a simple, yet impressive technical and visual style.

Donna (Shan MacDonald) is at home alone. She does the washing up, replaces the liquid in her e-cigarette, finishes off a glass of red wine. Struggling with the opener to get into the next bottle, she smashes the neck off over the sink with a hammer. An interesting technique, but is it resourceful or desperate? Her face blurred and slightly distorted, seen through the kitchen window, there is something amiss here. And then there’s the crushing silence. A bleak, colourless palette, unreturned text messages to her daughter, and a squared aspect captures Donna at the fringes of the frame at home or on the bus, dwarfed by her isolation. She has no one to talk to.

Learning that she must undertake community service at a local vets as a result of a DUI, her ongoing drinking – this time when vacuuming – is a concern; and probable reason for the estrangement from her daughter. Disembodied voices – of her doctor, her supervisor at the surgery – are heard out of shot as Donna attends appointments and meetings, endeavouring to make progressive steps. However, it is Charlie, a dog set to be put down, that offers Donna a new purpose. Under a shock of black and white hair that covers his eyes, and with his tongue hanging out one side of his mouth, he’s a dopey little fella, but Donna takes to him instantly.

Sitting on the bus home, the new pair fill the frame, confident and content. He is someone to talk to when she gets home each day from the menial tasks of her work, a way to break the disquiet. Like his owner, Charlie has problems with his ticker, but soon enough they beat together. But will he be enough to fill the void left by her daughter, or is it perhaps the wine she misses the most? All scenes are short and snappy, but are filled with Donna’s tenderness and affection for the animals under her care.

With a very clear vision for her direction, Young’s economy of narrative, stripping back any superfluous dialogue or characterisation, means that Donna is more or less our sole focus – most of her interlocutors are also heard but not seen outside the frame. With so much genuine love to give, all she needs is for it to be reciprocated. Unable to cope with how often the animals she spends each day with are abandoned here or put out to proverbial pasture, Donna begins to bring more and more home.

Her house fast resembling an unlivable pigsty, we are growingly concerned by her state of mind and what the eventual consequences might be for this well-intentioned, but wholly impractical, worrying obsession. It’s hard to comprehend how or why it has taken so long since Young’s film premiered at TIFF 2019 for Murmur to make its way to UK audiences. But we can only be thankful to the Glasgow programming team that they have done so at last. Seen in the context of the past year, this tale of a lady’s best friend, love and loneliness resonates even further. A gem of the festival; it’s not to be missed.

The 2021 Glasgow Film Festival takes place between the 24 February to 7 March. You can follow CineVue’s coverage here.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63