Monday, May 14, 2012

Classic Throwback: Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

Ratcatcher is the debut feature film from Scottish writer and director, Lynne Ramsay (Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin). Though crafting this film at just 30 years of age, Ramsay’s original and fascinating vision screened in the Un Certain Regard competition at 1999 Cannes Film Festival, and opened the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Note: this analysis delves into key parts of the plot and may contain spoilers. 

Ratcatcher, a personal film dealing with strong and relevant themes of coming-of-age and childhood loneliness, and a significant period of Glasgow’s developmental history, is a challenging film. Haunting and ultimately devastating, it is a difficult one to stomach, but on few occasions have I seen such gritty realism so beautifully captured and affectingly conveyed.

Set in and around a Glasgow tenement block during a garbage strike in the mid-1970’s, this astonishing film relays the despicable conditions of the housing scheme – no running hot water or bathing facilities, and with streets and yards lined with uncollected bags of rubbish, and breeding grounds for rats, disease and sickness - put in place to accommodate working class tenants until the city’s major redevelopment program re-houses them in modern estates. The film’s central character, 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie, sensational), lives with his family in one of these schemes, and they wait patiently to be relocated.

James, haunted by the role he played in the accidental drowning death of his friend, Ryan Quinn, in the nearby canal, attempts to harness his guilt (having to face Ryan's grieving parents) and retreats from the horrors of his existence into his own private world of observatory solitude. In addition to coping with the abounding health hazards and dire living conditions, he suffers a strained relationship with his aggressive and alcoholic father, George (Tommy Flanagan), and tires of accompanying his friends, the local gang, as they wreak havoc and terrorise others.

He develops some strange alternative friendships, including a middle-class older girl, Margaret Anne, who the boys in the gang use for sex - and one on occasion they throw her glasses into the canal - and a dim-witted boy, Kenny, his own age who has a love for animals, and is rarely seen without holding his new pet, or one of the dead rats he finds amongst the rubbish. James and Margaret Anne take comfort in each other – he in distraction from his guilt, and she in a male different to the others who has no desire to take advantage of her physical development - and James is awakened sexually through their interactions. 

There are several key events in James' life during the period of the film that capture his loss of innocence and coming of age. James has to learn to cope with death. This applies to both humans and animals in the story, because James knows that the mouse Kenny ties to a balloon and sends floating into the air did not reach the Moon as was Kenny's fantasy, but has died. He has begun to process Ryan's death and knows that death is very real. He suppresses his growing disillusionment; his feelings of frustration, grief and guilt, with private solitude. 

Ramsay’s world building is extraordinary. Following an opening shot unlike any other I have seen, she makes an interesting decision to introduce us to the town through a character we are shocked to learn won’t have too much screen time. The mood is conveyed through simple scenes of tracking the characters, embedding us as observers in this less-than-desirable location, affiliating us with the people involved in this story, and capturing the children playing in the street and scouring through the rubbish heaps. 

She offers a tender, but unsentimental social study of life in these schemes and an intimate examination of a coming-of-age story and the complex relationships between these characters. James and his sisters, Ellen (older) and Anne Marie (younger), argue just like typical siblings do, but clearly tolerate one another because they are family, while every exchange between James and his forgiving warm-hearted mother, and James his irresponsible disciplinarian drunk of a father (who does genuinely try his best to take care of his family - and in one instance, is credited a town hero) feels genuine. Even the scenes between James and Margaret Anne, which possess a level of awkwardness, are wonderfully realised.

The performances from the actors are highly commendable, and especially the youngsters, though there are times when the thick Scottish accents are difficult to understand. Ramsay's vision reminded me of Italian neorealism, but brought to Glasgow and ignited with visual flair (the opening shot is played at half speed), and an impressive use of sound design and soundtrack. Though the story is loose and contains limited dialogue, the poetic way that Ramsay documents and transcends the grimy atmosphere of the period (it looks like it has been filmed on location) with hypnotic visuals and a compelling tale of youth disillusionment, as well as incorporating animals as clever visual motifs, results in several poignant and affecting scenes.

There is tranquility and solitude, a desired cleanliness, to the half-constructed house James discovers when riding a directionless bus until the end of its route - and you can feel his relief and joy at discovering the expansive wheat field at its rear. The way this scene is photographed, utilizing jump cuts and swift editing, captures his jubilation at this brief but unexpected freedom. James’ consolation is his hope that his family will soon be moving to a new home, like the one he discovers and explores. In one of the film's most devastating scenes, council inspectors visit the Gillespie’s home, and James, believing they have news about the move, allows them to come in and find his father embarrassingly indisposed and the house in poor maintenance. His father, furious that he would let them in with the place in such a state, claims him to be the blame if they aren’t assigned a new home. 

This is the near-elimination of hope that rocks James, and when James returns to the house he visited earlier (still in development) he is no longer free to explore the interior, but finds it locked. This conveys exactly how he feels. His desired future is locked up, and he hates his present. Ratcatcher is a beautiful, but devastating film, and an impressively crafted debut feature from Ramsay, who would later direct Morvern Callar (review to come later in the week) and after a lengthy absence from filmmaking, We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best films to hit screens in 2011.

My Rating: ★★★★1/2 (A-)


  1. Definitely one of the best debut feature films ever made. Especially from someone as talented as Lynne Ramsay. Have you seen her three shorts? I would totally recommend seeing them. Then watch my favorite Ramsay film in Morvern Callar which I'll write about next month for the next part of my Favorite Films series.

    1. It is a striking debut isn't it? I loved 'Kevin' and I watched and loved 'Morvern Caller' the other day. My girlfriend is going to review it, because it is one of her favourite films. But I am yet to see her three shorts. Such a talent, though.

  2. I watched this a couple of months ago and loved it. The ending is kind of ambiguous, don't you think? It can be anything from depressing to happy. I think I was somehwere in the middle of the scale. It depends on how you read it.

    1. *SPOILERS*

      It is ambiguous, yes, but I am leading more towards the devastating side. I think his justification for his action is all there in the film. I would like to think that is the happy image is where his story ends up, but there wasn't enough glimmer of hope given (at any time) for it to turn out that perfectly. Great film, though.