GFF2021 Review: Murmur

Year: 2021
Duration: 1h 25m
Writer/Director: Heather Young
Starring: Andria Edwards, Shan McDonald

By Caz Armstrong

This quiet yet impactful reflection on addiction, love and loneliness is Heather Young’s first feature film. It taps into the basic human need for connection and the unconditional love of animals.

Donna (Andria Edwards) is a middle aged Canadian woman living alone and drinking every night. She lives in near silence and her daughter refuses to return her calls and texts. She has recently been convicted of drunk driving and part of her punishment is to carry out community service in a local animal shelter.

She takes on the role without fuss and dutifully carries out all the copious cleaning activities. But she quickly falls in love with a scrappy derpy little dog called Charlie who is due to be euthanised. Both Charlie and Donna are older, have heart murmurs and are alone in the world. Donna takes Charlie home and throws out her alcohol, filling the emptiness in her life with Charlie instead.

But with Charlie’s love not quite filling the hole in her life she soon gains a cat. And a hamster. And another dog. Her house becomes overrun with animals as she swaps addiction to alcohol to addiction to animals, getting in over her head.

“Murmur”

Heather Young’s approach is observational and she used entirely non-professional actors with the result feeling rather like a documentary.

Shot in 4:3 ratio and without any camera movement at all we are static observers of intimate moments and emotions. The colour palette is very grey and desaturated showing that there is no brightness in Donna’s bleak life. There is no music either, instead the sounds of the animals and the cleaning fill Donna’s world. Nothing is over the top or spoon fed to us but the messages are clear.

Firstly, we are presented with the disease of addiction. While taking care of animals has more positives than drinking alcohol, the underlying mechanisms of the addiction are the same. She can’t stop doing something that makes her feel better in the short term even though it’s damaging in the longer term. No matter the addiction, Donna’s problems remain as her daughter refuses to speak to her. She is still isolated and lonely.

The film also explores the need to love and be loved. Donna is incredibly tender and caring towards the animals. Her house, which was previously silent, now has casual chatter as she has something to talk to. She talks to the animals about their feelings and needs, telling them how loved and safe they are, asking if their food tastes nice.

Given her estrangement from her daughter, it’s especially meaningful for Donna to be able to put a nappy onto an animal, provide warmth for abandoned kittens or cuddle a newborn puppy. Even for viewers who don’t resonate with the motherhood angle, the need to care for another is very deeply human and is robbed from many who live alone.

Donna’s isolation is magnified in her sparse interactions with others. She has no friends, just functional meetings. Even when speaking with her doctor or therapist they’re not seen on screen. She’s like the animals in the shelter, caged and alone.

This theme of love and isolation is especially poignant while so many of us are in isolation due to COVID. Pets provide a lifeline to millions and unfortunately the number of people who have bought puppies they’re unable to care for in the longer term has caused growing concern.

“Murmur”

A note to the animal lovers and sensitive folk – the film does deal with troubling subject matter but be reassured that it is done with great care. At all times, the animals are loved, and that’s the strength of the film’s message. Some scenes may be sad but, aside from some routine veterinary procedures which the squeamish may wish to close their eyes for, it’s not graphic.

While Donna’s animal hoarding goes too far, it is treated with great sensitivity and empathy. She is a lonely person with addition problems in deep need of love and support, she just doesn’t know how to handle her coping mechanisms in moderation. This poignant and touching film will speak to many people on different levels and is a triumph for both Andrea Edwards’s acting and Heather Young’s directing. 

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