Lynne Ramsay's films are marked by a fascination with children and young people and the recurring themes of grief, guilt and death and its aftermath. They are low on dialogue and explicit story exposition, and instead use images, vivid details, music and sound design to create their worlds. In April 2013 she was selected as a member of the main competition jury at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival. In 2015, she was named as a member of the Jury for the Main Competition at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
Born in Glasgow on 5 December 1969, Ramsay studied photography at Napier College, Edinburgh, In 1995, she graduated from the National Film and Television School, where she specialised in cinematography and direction.
Ramsay took a break in-between Black and White Town and We Need to Talk About Kevin. As to her extended absence, the Scottish filmmaker explained that she thinks the film-making process is different for her, and other writer-directors, than it is for directors who don’t write their own material. The Harvard Film Archive welcomed Lynne Ramsay for a showcase of her films, including the three acclaimed shorts that inaugurated her career.
Ramsay experienced great personal frustration in her involvement with The Lovely Bones, during which personal and professional setbacks and mishandling saw her lose the job of directing to Peter Jackson, whose version of the film received largely negative reviews. She stated in an interview with Oliver Lyttelton that "People started to call it 'The Lovely Money,' they were getting greedy around it. And I could feel the vibes. It became like the Holy Bible, I kept handing in drafts and I thought they were good, but it was like 'But that's not exactly like the book, the book's going to be a success.' That was the mistake they made with the project." She stated additionally that she considered Jackson's interpretation of the film, with a desire to stick as closely as possible to the original story, was partially responsible for what she considered the lackluster quality of the finished product.
Ramsay won the 1996 Cannes Prix de Jury for her graduation film, the short "Small Deaths". Her second short film, "Kill the Day", won the Clermont Ferrand Prix du Jury; her third, "Gasman", won her another Cannes Prix du Jury in addition to a Scottish BAFTA for Best Short Film.
Small Deaths (1996) is Ramsay's debut short film that she completed as her graduating film at the UK's National Film and Television School. Small Deaths is a series of three vignettes of children grappling with familial realities and the repercussions of their actions. (1996, video, 11 minutes). Ramsay is the Writer, Director and cinematographer for this film.
Kill the Day (1996), written and directed by Ramsay, captures a day in the life of a heroin addict recently released from jail, and in the process inventively probes the inner workings of memory (1996, 35mm, 17 minutes).
Gasman (1998), also written and directed by Ramsay, is about a brother and sister who attend a Christmas party with their dad, and encounter two other children who are strangely familiar with him. (1998, video, 15 minutes).
Swimmer (2012), was co-commissioned by BBC Films, Film4 and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. The short was nominated at the British Independent Film Awards for Best Short and won a BAFTA for Best Short Film.
Ratcatcher (1999), Ramsay's debut feature, won critical acclaim and numerous awards. It was screened at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival, winning her the Guardian New Directors prize. She also won the Carl Foreman Award for Newcomer in British Film at the 2000 BAFTA Awards, the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival and the Silver Hugo for Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Morvern Callar (2002) won Samantha Morton the British Independent Film Award for Best Actress, and Kathleen McDermott the Scottish BAFTA Award for Best Actress. It also won the 2002 C.I.C.A.E. Award and the Award of The Youth at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival. The motion picture soundtrack includes tracks from Stereolab, Aphex Twin, Broadcast, Velvet Underground, and Nancy Sinatra. Ramsay is credited as the writer and director. The film is based on Alan Warner's 1995 novel of the same name, Morvern Callar. It was featured in the Directors Fortnight for the Cannes Film Festival 2002 and then went on to open the Edinburgh International Film Festival in August of the same year. The film also featured at the Telluride, Toronto, San Sebastian, Dinard and Stockholm Film Festivals of 2002. It was nominated for seven British Independent Film Awards.
Ramsay was slated to direct the adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, which she had read in manuscript form prior to its publication. She left the project in early 2004 after the novel had become a bestseller and the producers wanted a version more faithful to the original than she had been planning. Her next project was the BBC Films-produced adaptation, We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver's Orange Prize-winning novel. The film premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and was released in the United Kingdom on 21 October 2011.
We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) is Ramsay's most recent feature-length film in which she was the writer, producer and director. The film is about the trials of motherhood and raising a troubled child, and is based on Lionel Shriver's novel. Budgetary difficulties held the production up, but after several script drafts, the film, which employed a fragmented, elliptical narrative and starred Tilda Swinton as the tormented mother, premiered in 2011 to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival. Ramsay went on to receive a BAFTA nomination for Best Director as well as taking the Best Director prize at the British Independent Film Awards, and a win for Best Film Screenplay at the Writer's Guild of Great Britain.
In 2013 Ramsay was slated to direct Jane Got a Gun. Natalie Portman signed on to star and produce the film as the farmer wife of an outlaw husband, who, after his gang turns on him, she must defend with the help of an old lover. In March 2013 Ramsay left the project due to creative differences with producers. She was replaced by Gavin O'Connor. Actor Jude Law also left the production shortly after.
Lynne Ramsay is scheduled to direct a modern adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. She has stated that the film will be set in space, and deal with themes of psychology and claustrophobia, quoting "So we're creating a whole new world, and a new alien. [It's] a very psychological piece, mainly taking place in the ship, a bit like Das Boot, so it's quite claustrophobic. It's another monster movie, cos the monster's Ahab."
In 2007 Ramsay was rated number 12 in Guardian Unlimited's list of the world's 40 best directors working today.
Ramsey is set to direct an adaptation of Jonathan Ames' novella You Were Never Really Here. The film, which will star Joaquin Phoenix, is set for release in 2017 with distribution from Amazon Studios.
You Were Never Really Here (2017) premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in competition on May 27, 2017. It received a seven-minute standing ovation, and Ramsay won the Best Screenplay award.
Ramsay directed the promotional video for the Manchester-based indie-rock band Doves' single "Black and White Town", which was released on 7 February 2005. However, Ramsay's version was re-edited and the released version was significantly different from her original piece.
Ramsay is known for the outspoken praise and criticism she receives from her industry contemporaries.
Sean O'Hagen said of her "Ramsay is entertaining company, whether talking about the art films she loves —by Bergman, Cassavetes, Fassbinder— or railing against the 'bullshitters and backstabbers' of the film industry."
The Harvard Film Archive describes Ramsay as "an uncompromising filmmaker fascinated by the tremendous power of cinema to appeal directly to the senses and awaken new depths in our audio-visual imagination. Immersive and at times almost overwhelming, Ramsay's films abound with uncommon imagery arresting for its remarkable use of texture, composition, color, music and sound."
In her New York Times biography, Ramsay's work is described as having a "gritty, realistic visual style that demands attention."
Tilda Swinton called her "the real McCoy" continuing "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."
British film critic Jonathan Romney, when speaking on We Need To Talk About Kevin, opined "Ramsay, thinks not in concepts but in images. She doesn't make intellectual films, but ones that are close to music, taking visuals to the point of abstraction"
Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Olsen considered Ramsay "one of the leading lights of young British cinema", describing her additionally as "among the most celebrated British filmmakers of her generation."
On 8 October 2013, Ramsay was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Edinburgh for her contribution to British film.