In the vein of potent U.K. coming-of-age films such as Made in Britain, Kes and This is England, Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 directorial feature film debut Ratcatcher strikes a powerful chord within the realm of innocence and provides an unforgettable story of growing up too fast. I really appreciate coming-of-age films starring boy characters, which I believe I mentioned in my review for The Reflecting Skin (on a side note, it was recently released on DVD in North America for the first time!), because I feel so deeply connected to these passing rituals of age and the horrors and wonders it brings with it.
Ratcatcher is an especially effective film because of its aesthetic appeal. Ramsay studied photography, and she has a rare ability of being able to infuse a poetic beauty to the wildness of chaos. James is a young boy living in the slums of Glasgow during the infamous garbage strike of ’73. During this period, garbage piled up in heaps around the city and backyards flooded with rivers of filth. In one such river of filth, James accidentally kills another young boy in a miscalculated act of childhood mischief (literally within the first five minutes of the film). Without providing context, I was a bit surprised how quickly things unfolded, and it turns out that there is a false protagonist in the film after all, but the pacing of the film works wonderfully. Five minutes is all it takes for childhood innocence to be lost and lives to alter irrevocably. These pivotal few moments haunt James for the remainder of the film, and throughout he is forced to confront both the demons within him and around him. His neighbourhood isn’t exactly safe, and throughout the film there is a constant threat of impending danger, whether from the hoodlums at every street corner, or the muddy rivers and bile on the street that remain, eating up all life that comes across them. James also has a troubled relationship with his alcoholic father (played brilliantly by Tommy Flanagan; his Glasgow smile in this film has never been more appropriate).
As a photographer and cinematographer, Ramsay chooses to focus on imagery over dialogue, and this works so well for the film, although the dialogue is great too. Ramsay brings the dingy alleyways and congested, dull sidewalks and corridors alive with a poetic resonance. It’s a seemingly magical juxtaposition that really maintains your interest. There are moments of childhood naivete which stay with you, and you know those moments will never last, but there’s subtle charm to the imaginativity, such as when one of James’ friends attaches his pet rat/hamster to a balloon and decides to let it fly to the Moon. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, in an almost dream-like sequence, James takes the bus out to the middle of nowhere where a new house is being built and infiltrates it, relishing its beauty and tranquility. It’s a possibility which he will never experience, but it’s that feeling of bliss and hope as he’s running through the endless fields that keeps him going.
As with the aforementioned films, particularly Ken Loach’s gem Kes, Ratcatcher is a thoroughly depressing film and ends on a bleak note. It maintains the atmosphere of Kes with its dreary setting and theme of vanishing dreams. I haven’t seen any of Ramsay’s other films yet ( although Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk about Kevin look superb, and I’ve heard that Gasman is something special), but Ratcatcher is an outstanding debut for a director, and definitely one of the most affecting coming-of-age films out there. It’s also part of the Criterion collection, which certainly isn’t a bad thing.