With her debut feature Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay confirmed herself as one of the most distinct and important voices to emerge from the United Kingdom in recent years. The Scottish-born director evinced a preoccupation with family and the fragilities of childhood and adolescence in a trilogy of shorts, Small Deaths (1995), Kill the Day (1996), and Gasman (1997); Ratcatcher continued and refined Ramsay’s exploration. There’s a rich tradition of U.K. films that dwell on childhoods disenfranchised by poverty and class—geographically immediate comparisons may be made with Ken Loach’s Kes or with Bill Douglas’ stark triptych My Childhood/My Ain Folk/My Way Home—but Ramsay is concerned with more than local social commentary. With a documentarian’s sensitivity to details both abstract and absurd, she can draw the viewer’s eye to some gesture that is both casual and momentous—while she allows almost still images to resonate (a rarity in British cinema, which shies from the meditative moment). The exquisite precision in the framing of each shot bears witness to her background in photography. In Ratcatcher, her artistic project is to create a cinema that brings together both the social and surreal, allowing the audience into the fantastic world of the young protagonist’s imagination.
The film is located in a very specific time and place: a Glasgow beset by the garbage men’s strike of 1973 which left the city swamped by ominous, black plastic bags bloated with detritus, and the attendant army of rats. The spare intensity of Ratcatcher, however, makes manifest that it is less concerned with the material than the existential or spiritual. This is a film, after all, about a young boy (James, played by William Eadie) who, on the brink of adulthood, descends into purgatory, a state of bad faith for which he faces uncertain redemption. The haunting opening shot of a child caught swaying in a thin skin of lace curtain captures the essence of the film. It is at once the image of the mortal yet to be, contained in its opaque embryonic sac; it is also life wrapped up in the end by the winding sheet. Ramsay implies that James is a ghost of a boy after playing a game that goes awry by the local canal. The incident—a moment of ordinary and casual childish cruelty that has devastating effect—inspires a strange fascination with the thick snake of black water—a Stygian memento mori that bisects his world, now irrevocably changed. Indeed water provides a key metaphor in a film that muses on the protean state of being that is submerged just under the surface of adulthood.
The landscape (created by Ramsay with production designer Jane Morton and cinematographer Alwin Küchler, who, along with editor Lucia Zucchetti, have been regular collaborators since film school) uses a subtle palate of earthy browns and slates. The permanently occluded environs of a tenement estate besieged by the rubbish of the world reflect an emotional state gone muddy for James. Yet there are moments scrubbed bright and bare to reveal the primary colors of childhood dreams. James finds hope when he takes a yellow bus out of town and discovers the shell of a new housing estate, lapped by fields of corn. In this golden Elysium he can be a carefree child again—cavorting in the meadows and trying out the empty houses for size (crucially, this housing estate, with dwellings that boast the luxury of bathrooms and gardens, offers a tantalizing glimpse of a life that James and his family could aim for). Such moments that hark to innocence lost can also be found in James’s friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen, whose delicately expressive face reminds one of Falconetti), who, lanky and myopic, is easy prey for the local gang of boys. Theirs is a tender yet naïve relationship. In one scene Ramsay depicts them bathing together, rendering them as joyous water babies oblivious of sexual experience. But James’ inability to go to Margaret Anne’s aid when the local lads are abusing her only underscores his incapability of making a positive moral move when needed.
The film’s coda hints that James finds respite at the end, trooping with his family through those golden fields toward their new home as if taking a curtain call. But the profound emotional truth of Ratcatcher is in James’ death (whether literal or metaphoric); childhood is shed to face a rawer existential reality. The enigmatic conclusion of Ratcatcher echoes the similarly agnostic endings of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Robert Bresson’s Mouchette, and Victor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive, films which also value patient observation, lyrical cinematic language, and openheartededness over polish and conclusiveness. Ramsay has said that, as a filmmaker, she doesn’t like to make things black-and-white, she doesn’t like to “over-intellectualize,” she works intuitively. This willful, measured naïvete—balanced with a rigorous pursuit of vision—is precisely what allows the wonders and horrors of childhood to filter through her art, undiluted.