Ratcatcher review – Lynne Ramsay’s haunting debut is a hallucinatory wonder

Twenty-five years ago, we saw one of the most impressive debut features in modern British movie history. Ratcatcher, by the 29-year-old Glasgow film-maker Lynne Ramsay, was a visually haunting, passionate piece of work to compare with Terence Davies or Ken Loach and which set a gold standard of artistry for new social realist cinema – or cinema of any sort – in the UK. I remember how blown away I was when I saw it at the Edinburgh film festival, especially by the rippling, sunlit fields at which a troubled child gazes, framed by the doorway of the half-built council house development outside Glasgow. (Only now does it occur to me to wonder if Ramsay was influenced by John Ford.)

The setting is Glasgow during the 13-week bin collectors’ strike of 1975 during which bags of rubbish piled up everywhere, causing a plague of rats in the grim estates whose families were waiting to be rehoused in new council accommodation; it was finally cleared up by sending in the army, in an uneasy echo of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. James Gillespie (played by non-professional William Eadie) is a 12-year-old from one of these families; he’s roaming around the place, squabbling with his sisters Ellen (Michelle Stewart) and Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr), hectored by his longsuffering Ma (Mandy Matthews) and scared of his hard-drinking, violent Da (Tommy Flanagan). While playing near the reeking canal, for a laugh James pushes in another boy called Ryan Quinn – who disappears under the water and doesn’t resurface. Guilty and panicked, James runs away and doesn’t tell another living soul about his guilty role in what happened, even as the hearse with the small coffin some weeks later pulls up and the open door squashes against a rubbish bag on the pavement.

What is so striking and eerie about Ratcatcher is Ramsay’s brilliant way of rendering a trance-like, epiphanic child’s-eye-view of a hundred little things that present themselves to James’s senses. But this is not simply a film-making mannerism: it is James’s own sense of dream-like unreality. He knows, or is pretty sure that he knows, he has done something terrible, but can’t be sure, but in any case the grownup world isn’t aware of it, and his life just carries on, but now with this sheen of hallucinatory strangeness. Did he dream it? Or is this the dream? At one moment, the dead boy’s mother shouts in the street: “You killed my son!”; James flinches, but she is talking about her absent husband, who left her alone and unable to keep an eye on their boy. James’s life brings him to an intimation of adulthood with a kind of poignant love-affair with a local girl, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), who is being abused by a gang of bigger boys.

Perhaps, as the action continues, James just forgets or can hardly believe what has happened, but it turns out that the event was secretly witnessed by another child and a nauseous twist of fate means that he can never forget; his Da has to rescue another boy from drowning in the same stretch of canal and becomes a local hero for his courage. It could also be that James senses that in some parallel world he could have died and Ryan could have survived, and the difference between these two realities is negligible. Ratcatcher is about the terrible nearness of death, like that crumbling, unsafe canal bank along which we are all condemned to walk; it is about grief and about the shock of grief and the stabbing fear which, in its terrifying way, gives you a clarified view of your own existence. A film to wonder at.

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Ratcatcher is in UK cinemas from 12 April.


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