What is immediately apparent from the very first frames of this film is that Lynne Ramsay is not just a director. She’s not just a storyteller. She is an artist. There is a very rich culture of artistically driven filmmaking in Scotland and Ramsay has certainly played her part in shaping the industry. I can’t help thinking that Ramsays time studying photography in Edinburgh before she moved onto the National Film and Television School seems to have been brought to bear in her film work. If you watch her earlier shorts, it’s easy to see how she has developed a bold visual language over time that is unique to her. There is more than a touch of the ‘artist film’ here. It’s in the short, closely cropped images of a boy wrapped in his mothers net curtains, a knife comb pulled from a back pocket, blood on an ice cream, a kitten dropped to the floor. It’s in the high contrast, soft focus cinematography.
The story is set in Glasgow in the 1970s, at a time when many of the tenement buildings were being condemned, cleared and their inhabitants moved out of the city and into new housing schemes on the outskirts. The bin men are on strike and the army has been called in to remove the heaps of refuse left to rot in the communal gardens and on the pavements of the neighbourhood. Rats are fair game for boys wishing to take out their frustrations.
James Gillespie is a young boy with a secret. He has been involved in the drowning of another young boy from his neighborhood in the canal. He is a quiet, sensitive boy trapped between childhood naivety and the dark secret he must keep. He is capable of a level of empathy and understanding that many adults would find impossible. Often alone, he befriends Margaret Anne, a teenage girl living in the neighborhood who is being routinely abused by a local gang of boys. It is heartbreaking to see her impassive face turn away from James’ gaze as boy after boy drags her into the outdoor lavatory to have his 3 minutes of fun at her expense. James, however, sees her as a whole person. He sees her suffering and it awakens a sense of nurturing in him. An especially touching scene plays out as James, having been de-liced by his own mother, takes it upon himself to thoroughly probe Margaret Annes hair with a nit comb.
Purely by chance James stumbles upon one of the new suburban housing developments in the process of being built. It is a wonderful visual metaphor for hope, as it becomes his playground for the afternoon. For for a while he can forget his cares and dream of a better life. Here we see a flash of Ramsay’s visual artistry as a golden field of wheat is framed in the dark window of one of the houses looking, for a second, like a serene painting. James cannot contain himself and climbs out to run with abandon through it.
The new housing schemes were seen by many to be a beacon of hope after the dilapidated and overcrowded conditions of the tenements. However,they were often cheaply built, had very few local amenities and there were no employment opportunities nearby. The displacement of thousands of families merely shifted the socio-economic problems they faced to the suburbs. The move fractured communities and many schemes became hotbeds of vandalism and crime. As a portent of this future, when James returns to the development a second time the houses have been sealed and he can only gaze through the windows into dark interiors as his dreams begin to fade.
Glasgow is a city close to my heart. It was my home for 10 years and even now my heart skips a beat every time the train rolls into Central Station on my too brief visits. Ramsay also obviously loves Glasgow. She has captured the feel of the place perfectly. The way it can be so drab and cold sometimes, how parts of the city seem to be physically mourning the lost of industry. But also how the communities can be so warm and tight-nit. She has made the canal a constant presence. There is a sense of menace as it snakes its way through the sparse wasteland behind the tenements, drawing curious boys to its murky edges.
The dialogue is sparse. Ramsay doesn’t rely on it to convey her ideas. Instead she allows this remarkable cast of actors to deliver some very fine, nuanced performances. In particular, the young William Eadie who plays James is astounding.
This is, quite simply, a beautiful film. It is poetic, moving and intensely sad. Lynne Ramsay has been called a visionary and based on Ratcatcher alone, I’m inclined to agree. I can’t wait to watch the rest of her work.
I’m pretty sure this one does not pass the bechdel test, but it is a great film nonetheless.