Scottish director Lynne Ramsay made an outstanding feature-film debut through the social drama “Ratcatcher”. The film won numerous awards including a BAFTA for the most promising newcomer, but Ms. Ramsay was merely following a long tradition of British social realism that dates at least as far back as Charles Dickens, alongside some other fine film makers working today such as Ken Loach, Danny Boyle, and Mike Leigh.
Set in a mid-seventies Glaswegian council estate during a dustmen strike, we watch children kill their time either playing in the nearby polluted canal, bullying whoever they could, or hunting for rats among the piles of garbage that lay unattended for weeks. One day, twelve year old Ryan (Thomas McTaggart) and neighbour James (William Eadie) get into a play-fight by the canal, and Ryan drowns. Young James will find it difficult to cope with the event, reflected through his behaviour towards his parents and sisters henceforth. But despite their frictions, the one thing everyone in his family root and pray for, is to be allotted a council flat in a modern housing estate that’s taking shape in the outskirts of the city – everyone wants to escape the squalor of their living conditions. James tags along the older boys who periodically take turns abusing local girl Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a bespectacled girl desperate to be accepted among the group. Even though she’s slightly older than him, James strikes up a rapport with her, and possibly even falls in love. He becomes friends with another neighbour, the slightly eccentric Kenny (John Miller), and their friendship is one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak film. The army is finally brought in to clear the rubbish, and some lucky families also begin moving out of the estate, but will there be a similar redemption for James and family…
The film may be a comment on the depravity in inner city council estates, but it also has additional layers. It is a commentary on the politics of the period the film was set against. The promised better life wasn’t within reach of everyone, and their fate are likened to that of the lucky-draw through which newer apartments are allotted to families in the film. It is also a beautiful observation of children growing up in less than ideal surroundings, and it is refreshing too because it is from a woman’s viewpoint.
Behind the grime and the slum-like surroundings, we see not only people’s little flaws, but their spirit and kindness too – nothing is black and white as it may appear from afar, and this is where the film triumphs. The characterisation and dialogues are remarkably thoughtful and well conceived for a young director making her feature-film debut. It must have been daunting for Ms. Ramsay to live up to the huge expectations after its critical success, but to her credit and our joy, has continued to make several insightful and unique films since. I couldn’t help sharing a brief scene as imagined by James, when Kenny releases his pet mouse Snowball in the direction of the moon by tying it to a balloon. The scene lightens the sombre mood during an otherwise important passage of play…
Performance-wise, all the main cast are universally convincing, despite the fact that several of them are not professional actors. Like young Kenny (John Miller), one of my favourite characters in the film who lightens up proceedings with some dry but unintentional humour. Ms. Ramsay’s daughter performs in the film too, as James’ little sister Anne Marie. This is a British film classic, it is ‘real’, and Highly Recommended Viewing..!
Amazon.com DVD Link [NTSC]
This Criterion DVD is my recommendation, not only for its transfer, but the extras, including the director’s engaging interview, and her three short films made earlier.
The Nudity: Leanne Mullen
There’s a candid scene in which James joins Margaret Anne in the bath after grooming her hair, a scene that’s also discussed by the director during the DVD interview.