Heather Young’s quiet, restrained drama is a deceptively harrowing portrait of addiction and compulsion. Focusing on a woman trying to make amends after her own demons have left her utterly alone, the Canadian filmmaker’s feature debut is merciless in its depiction of a shattered life. Murmur delivers the emotional weight of the most gruelling horror film in the guise of a delicate character piece.

Donna (Shan MacDonald) is a lonely woman who finds a sense of purpose after she’s convicted of driving while impaired. Her community service involves working as a cleaner at an animal shelter. As an alcoholic who suffers from a heart murmur, Donna feels a kinship with the infirm animals in her care. She eventually takes home Charlie, an elderly dog with a remarkable range of health conditions who was scheduled to be euthanised. This companionship triggers something in Donna and she begins to obsessively fill her home with an increasing number of animals.

MacDonald, a non-professional actor, gives a hugely impressive, raw performance as Donna. Young’s camera is rarely too far from her wan, exhausted face, framed in a tight, claustrophobic and unforgiving ratio. She’s not so much lonely as she’s been effectively exiled thanks to her prior behaviour while drunk. She’s estranged from her daughter, who appears to be her only living relative: ‘She’s my heart. She’s my only baby,’ she tells an alcohol counsellor. The pain in her eyes as she sends another futile text after another glass of wine or buzzes her daughter’s building to be rebuffed once again is heart-breaking. Of course she’s going to take whatever affection she can find, especially in the similarly broken Charlie. But even when she goes cold turkey from the booze to take care of the adorable little invalid, you sense her addict’s brain is simply transferring to yet another unhealthy pattern; one that can be rationalised until too late. Before long, she has an entire menagerie and it isn’t long before her house of cards tumbles.

The tragedy is that Donna has simply been ground down by who knows what. She’s a woman who has clearly made mistakes, but dearly wants to atone. She certainly has a remarkable affinity for the animals in her care, within the controlled confines of the care centre at least. There are some genuinely gorgeous scenes to lighten the weight. From Donna warming four tiny kittens inside her hoodie and feeding them milk from a pipette, to a dog giving birth to a litter of pups, it’s difficult not to cling desperately to those moments of optimism – redemption even – for Donna. But the inevitability here is as crushing as death itself, and it all leads to a scene of such despair it’s almost too much. Murmur isn’t misery porn, it’s too grounded for that. It’s simply achieves its aims a little too well.

A remarkable and intimate character study driven by pure empathy, Murmur will be a difficult watch for anyone who has gone through addiction and the myriad patterns of deflected compulsive behaviour in which one can indulge while in recovery. Sometimes it’s difficult to see that you’re carving fresh wounds as the old ones heal. But Young’s film isn’t polemical or preachy, and doesn’t castigate its protagonist. It simply presents a flawed, recognisable, and deeply human person who grasps at recovery and has it snatched away by her own frailty. It is really one of the most subtly devastating films in recent memory and a beautifully composed piece of storytelling.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival from Fri 26 Feb 2021