With the recent release of You Were Never Really Here, and the Rewind year at Filmotomy, it seems only fitting to revisit Lynne Ramsay’s debut film which came out in the glorious year of film, 1999. Ratcatcher was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and won its director numerous awards including the Carl Foreman Award for Newcomer in British Film at the BAFTA Awards, the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival and the Silver Hugo for Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival. Despite the numerous awards the film never received a wide cinematic release, but it has gone on to become a modern day classic, in fact the Taste of Cinema put Ratcatcher fourth in list of the fifteen greatest Scottish films of all time.
Ratcatcher is set in Glasgow, 1973 which at the time had some of the poorest housing conditions in western Europe, these apartments had no running hot water, no bathing facilities, and no indoor toilets. The city is midway through a major redevelopment program, demolishing these schemes and re-housing the tenants in new modern estates which seems like heaven compared to the dumping ground of the inner city slums. The problems in these schemes are somewhat compounded by the bin men going on strike, creating an additional health hazard and a breeding ground for rats and other vermin. The main character, James (William Eadie), is a 12-year-old boy, who growing up in one of these schemes, which is gradually emptying as the re-housed tenants move out. James, with the rest of his family, (two sisters, one older, one younger, his mum and heavy-drinking father), patiently wait to be re-housed. The film manages to capture the ordeal of coming-of-age and the transition from childhood to adolescence, in such an unique way that it is hard to believe that this was Ramsay’s first feature, there is so much order and maturity in her work.
The world of Ratcatcher may be filled with despair, poverty and squalor, but it is also packed with beautiful and stunning imagery that will remain with you after the films has ended. The film begins with a young boy named Ryan spinning around while wrapped in his mother’s curtains, the cream-colored lace covering his face like a shroud, and the scene shifts from slow motion to real time as his mother angrily pulls him out of the fabric. Ryan and his mother set off to visit his father in prison, but he sneaks off to play in the canal with his friend James. The two boys muck about, play fighting and rough housing but things get out of hand quickly and Ryan ends up drowned. James finds himself keeping the terrible truth of his friend’s death a secret, but soon begins to unravel. However, at the same time he strikes up a relationship with an older girl called Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) who is the estate’s “village bike”. Despite his friendship with both Margaret Anne and Kenny (John Miller), what James really desires is a way out of this life and for a new start.
Ramsay, wrote the script, which seems at the same time both original and a homage to films such as The 400 Blows and Cathy Come Home, indeed Ratcatcher could be the updated version of The 400 Blows as directed by Ken Loach. The film may have moments of misery, however it’s runtime is broken up with occasional vivid splash of colour, such as the bright red balloon which floats a pet mouse into space and takes it to the moon, in one of the film’s more surreal scenes. It could be a scene from a Spielberg or Disney film but it’s grounded in a sense of realism and follows just after James’ friend Kenny has been bullied by the older boys who have played catch with his new pet mouse. It how Ramsay manages to shows us the wonderful and the surreal among the bleakness which makes this film so special and unique, unlike other social realism kitchen sink dramas which seem too caught up in the miserable world of Britain’s underclass.
Despite the film’s setting, it is sweet and soulful, with gentle shifts of mood from the absolute tragic to the enduring optimism that children often have. Perhaps the reason Lynne Ramsay uses children as her protagonists is for their fleetness of expression; they move from one state to another very quickly. All of the children actors deliver a great performance, especially Eadie and Mullen who have some beautiful and amusing scenes together. One of these scene involves the unusual couple, playing in the tub, scrubbing each other’s infected scalps. Afterward, they sit in front of the television set, wrapped in towels while eating sandwiches, like a old married couple. There is a sexual element to their relationship but what James really wants is so comfort, something which is severely lacking in this tough bleak industrial world in which he exists in.
The contrast between the life in the inner city slum and the countryside is captured beautifully, with the new housing development been shot in this dream-like way, perhaps indicating just how badly James wants to be in this place. He keeps visiting the new housing development, just wandering around the half-built houses, like a child full of curiosity about the world. There’s a sweet and tender moment when he sits silently, happily, in an empty new tub, playing around with the taps. As he plays in a vast field behind the uninhabited home, the camera zooms out and we see him through a kitchen window with bright blue skies and warm yellow grass in a big black frame making a striking contrast between the grey, muted colours of the city. This sequence shows us that Lynne Ramsay’s has something rare nowadays, she has imagination, passion and creativity, all aspects which many contemporary filmmakers are lacking.
It is not just the cast and the director who are noteworthy. Composer Rachel Portman’s score, is sparse but has a powerful impact (her works include The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Never Let Me Go and most recently Their Finest), there are some truly uplifting moments mixed in with sombre pieces. The sound design is specific and minimal, adding to the feeling that the picture is wrapped in a constant dreaminess, like that lace curtain at the beginning and the scenes of James running in the field. It is also worth mentioning that are also several other transitions from slow motion to normal speed that occur throughout the film, reinforcing that dreamlike quality to the film. With cinematography by Alwin H. Küchler ( the DP on Sunshine, Hanna and Steve Jobs) and editing from Lucia Zucchetti the film has a French New Wave atmosphere and appearance. This is a strong film which despite its tough subject matter, is a highly enjoyable film which needs to be revisited.