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Ratcatcher

Director: Lynne Ramsay


Following its successful screenings at the Cannes Film Festival, Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s first feature has drawn comparisons with the work of filmmakers as diverse as Bill Douglas, Robert Bresson, Terence Davies, Francois Truffaut, Ken Loach and Terrence Malick. The esteemed French critic, Michel Ciment acclaimed Ratcatcher as the best British film of the past fifteen years. Not to be outdone, British critics have just given Ramsay’s debut the best notices of any film released in 1999.
What is surprising about all this acclaim is that it should be lavished on such an original and uncompromising work by a young director who makes few concessions to the demands of commercial cinema. As the plethora of critical comparisons would suggest, Ramsay’s film isn’t easy to define or place. A plot synopsis would make it sound like another slice-of-life drama in the British realist tradition. The setting is a rundown Glasgow housing estate during the refuse collectors’ strike of the 1970s, and the focus is on a working-class family of scruffy kids, hard-drinking father and tough, good-hearted mother.
It’s familiar material, but Ramsay’s approach confounds expectations of a grimly, realistic kitchen-sink drama. I wanted to make a film that was driven by emotions and images rather than narrative, the director has said, and the most striking feature of Ratcatcher is its powerfully imaginative visual style. Trained as a photographer before turning to images that move, Ramsay has the ability to paint pictures with the camera that reveal the richness of everyday life. Her images are carefully composed, and the film works by homing in on small, telling details or adopting unusual angles that enable us to look at the world afresh.
Ratcatcher’s highly subjective viewpoint is reinforced by the way it show events unfolding through the eyes of its young protagonist, James (William Eadie), whose perceptions are coloured by one of many little tragedies that are scattered throughout the film. At the start of the film, James has a fight with another boy near the canal that borders the housing estate. The boy drowns, but James keeps silent about his involvement in the incident. This secret weighs heavily on the youngster, causing him to withdraw from the family and spend much of his time hanging out with older kids by the canal. He befriends Margaret Ann (Leanne Mullen), a confused 14-year old whose craving for love leads her into casual sex with a loutish local gang.
The tender relationship which develops between James and Margaret is typical of how Ramsay manages to find beauty amidst the poverty and squalor. The film has an affectionate yet wholly unsentimental view of its characters and their circumstances, which no doubt derives from Ramsay’s own experience of growing up in Glasgow during the 1970s. There’s also a great deal of humour in Ratcatcher, as well as fanciful flights of imagination. Both elements are combines in a wonderful scene where a dim-witted kid trying to impress some friends, attaches his pet mouse to a balloon, only to see it soar up into the sky to a certain death. But the boy imagines the mouse travelling all the way to the moon, and Ramsay obliges by providing an illustration of his fantasy.

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