Thursday, March 8, 2001
Clearly, being a kid in the UK isn''t much fun. (At least not on film: Think of all the bleak films of the ''90s--Into the West, Butcher Boy, Angela''s Ashes, The Snapper and The War Zone, just to name a few). So the ending of Ratcatcher is almost predictable. But the trip we take to get there is gorgeous--in a melancholy, depressed and poetic sort of way.
A small-budget, indy film produced in association with Merchant Ivory Productions, Ratcatcher tells the story of James Gillespie (William Eadie), a 12-year-old growing up in ''70s Scotland. James lives with his mother (Mandy Matthew), alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), and two sisters in a Glasgow tenement. Most of the film takes place during a refuse-workers'' strike, and all the nearby streets are covered with bags of moldering garbage that provide the local children a never-ending source of interest ("Look! Someone''s thrown out a perfectly good dog!" chortles one urchin, holding up a canine corpse). For kids, there is something very rotten in the city of Glasgow.
As the movie opens, James is playing in the local canal with one of his friends. They begin to roughhouse, things get out of hand, and the friend drowns with no one to help or witness the event except James. He tells no one, but his guilt grows like a canker, further alienating him from both family and friends. His only times of comfort are the times he spends with his newfound, 14-year-old friend, Margaret-Anne (Leanne Mullen), and the scenes between these two young actors provide the movie''s most touching moments.
Both James and Margaret are misfits. He seems too sensitive to be hanging with the local bully boys and braggarts, and she''s so starved for attention that she''s willing to have sex with all the boys in the neighborhood even after they steal her glasses and throw them into the fateful canal. The two come together, drawn by shared loneliness and unexpressed shame--it''s not the platonic relationship between children who have not experienced the world, it''s more the platonic relationship of an old couple who have realized that the physical aspects of a relationship may be the least important. Actors Eadie and Mullen, who in real life are the same age as the characters they portray, turn in superbly nuanced, intricate character studies.
Also deserving of mention is Flanagan''s performance as James'' father. While loutish and insensitive, there''s no malice behind his actions--he''s just a working stiff trying to get through life one beer at a time. And then there''s young John Miller, who turns in a touching, and convincing performance as Kenny, James'' simple-minded, animal-loving friend.
Despite the excellence of the performances, the filmmaking may be the real star of the show. Writer/director Lynne Ramsay, making her feature debut after having won multiple award for her short films, teams with cinematography director Alwin Kuchler to create evocative and memorable scenes. From the get-go, the canal is turned into a menacing character, the eater of children and their glasses. Ramsay and Kuchler conjure so much ominous dread from the canal that you get tense every time someone goes near the water.
Later in the movie, James takes a bus ride to a housing development under construction, where he hopes his family may move someday soon. Although the work site is completely deserted, the unfinished rooms and furnishings fairly sing with hope for the future--and the scene is capped by James'' discovery of a window overlooking a broad golden field. Through Kuchler''s lens, the field--framed by the new home''s unfinished window--is as clean and filled with possibility as James'' tenement neighbor- hood is filthy and choked with crushed dreams.
Ratcatcher is presented with subtitles--which are a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Scot-accented English rattled off at full tilt is sometimes as incomprehensible to Yank ears as a foreign language. On the other hand, there''s enough context in most scenes--and one''s ear becomes increasingly used to the pronunciation--that the printed words become more a distraction than a help.
Tough childhood experiences may be nothing new to the screen, but the poetic imagery and excellent performances in Ratcatcher makes the pain feel fresh all over again.