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Released: November 12th, 1999 (UK)
Awards: BAFTA Best Newcomer (Ramsay).
Fun Fact: The thick Glasgow accents meant the film was subtitled for its limited theatrical release in the US
The British director Lynne Ramsay reached a host of new audiences with her adaptation of the book We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2011. She hadn’t directed a film in nine years and may have left the consciousness of many viewers in that time.
Her debut Ratcatcher arrived a dozen years before Kevin, but deals with some similar themes of parents failing in their relationships with their children, though the focus here is very much on the child’s perspective. The film is set in 1970’s Glasgow during a national rubbish strike which left the streets plagued with bin bags and an ever increasing population of rats. Amidst the squalor is Ryan, a young boy who, when play-acting with his friend in the nearby canal, unwittingly sees him die before his eyes. Ryan’s part in the incident is understandable (and almost negligible) but his failure to act and notify anyone of his plight is what condemns him to a state of guilt and what the critic Lizzie Francke called “purgatory, a state of bad faith for which he faces uncertain redemption”. Over the film’s brisk hour and a half runtime we watch as Ryan’s world struggles to get going again.
William Eadie plays Ryan and is brilliant at balancing that childlike innocence with the guilt that’s slowly consuming him. His performance will call to mind that of David Bradley’s Billy in Ken Loach’s similarly grim portrait of mid 20th century in Barnsley in Kes (1963). The film is a lot more sensitive to the boy’s plight though, whether you want to brave it and say it carries “a woman’s touch” is up to you. Ramsay has also brought in the part of a potential female ally, a troubled soul by the name of Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen). Lots of the local lads have had their way with her, seemingly to her own indifference, but Ryan hopes for something else entirely from her – a companion.
The central plot point of the film is whether Ryan’s family will be moved from the decrepit housing project to a more modern estate, like one discovered by Ryan on an out of town adventure. Even by the film’s ambiguous and beautiful coda, we’re left unsure if Ryan and his family ever make it out of the tenements alive.
Despite all this darkness and beauty there’s also room for a few laughs in there. The Glasgow dialect is a delight and Ramsay’s editor knows how to bring a laugh, none more so than some of the scenes between Ryan and Margaret Anne sitting watching TV wrapped up in their bath-towels. I’m still processing the wonderfully bonkers scene of Ryan’s neighbour’s mouse being tied to a balloon and making it to the moon (right).
Ramsay’s roots are in photography and the film is truly beautiful, with her making great use of the washed out greens, browns and greys of the housing project by the muddy canal and balancing that with the golden dreamy images of the corn field by the proposed housing development and the new life that it represents.
All in all, not an easy watch but it’s a fantastic feature debut with plenty here to chew over. Let’s hope for a higher return than three features in a twenty year career from now on please Ms Ramsay!