In Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay conjures beautiful images out of the grimness of a council estate in 1970s Glasgow in the middle of a rubbish collectors’ strike. Her first feature length film links to the work of other contemporary female directors – Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (2010) and The Selfish Giant (2013); and Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life (2011) – who unsentimentally yet respectfully look at the poor and marginalised in Britain, especially children and young women. These directors made their mark at the beginning of their careers in the context of contemporary British social realism, though they have later on moved to different types of filmmaking. Their work has been welcomed both as a step towards improving the gender balance within the UK film industry (often aided by the UK Film Council), and also because British social realism has been a predominantly masculine genre in terms of production and representation.1
This very distinct British national cinema tradition has reflected and adapted to historical, social, and cultural circumstances through the decades, giving audiences portrayals ranging from the rebellious 60s generation of working class “angry young men” to the dysfunctional and terminally unemployed of the 90s. More recently, the so-called ‘new realism’ abandons the traditional socio-political drive concerned with representing the material and institutional contexts of disadvantage through strong, clear and linear narratives, and opts for more symbolic, suggestive, elliptical storytelling and greater stylistic flourish. In David Forrest’s words, “(p)lacing socio-political impulses as the backdrop …. (new British realism is) united by a poetic and aesthetically bold approach to subject matter, which merges traditional thematic concerns with expressive art cinema templates.”2 Some might regret this shift away from politics as a consequence of New Labour and their Third Way ideology which decontextualised and neutralised poverty; however, the quality and distinctiveness of these films is undeniable.
The traditional concerns of social realism include life in deprived neighbourhoods (with city council estates often the default location), the impact of poverty on family life, and the options available or denied to individuals in such environments, including the desire to escape; all these are present in Ratcatcher. Ramsay’s previous shorts – Gasman (1998) and Short Deaths (1996) – already reflected her interest in family dynamics, childhood subjectivity and the pulsating inner life of objects and places. Her background in photography comes through in her perfectly calibrated compositions and the camera work which often lingers, almost caresses small details in the diegetic world. This is what Laura U. Marks has termed haptic images, which “invite a look that moves on the surface plane of the screen before the viewer realizes what she or he is beholding.”3 The camera is often very close to the person, object or place filmed; sometimes, the view within the frame is partly blocked through persons or objects. This brings the spectator close to the diegetic world; there is a strong sense of immediacy.
The opening slow motion shot of Ratcatcher shows a boy as he shrouds himself with the living room window curtain. Unidentified noises and voices of children playing are layered on top of this image, and the faint outline of factory chimneys can be seen through the window. His game is interrupted by a swift slap from his mother who objects to him playing with the lace curtains. The use of slow motion and the connotations of this image (subjectivity, death, play, a faint yet still present outside world) set the tone for a film where the everyday and the run-down is elevated to the status of ‘poetry’ – a term often found in critical writing about Ratcatcher. The film has the hallmarks of art cinema’s emphasis on the formal and aesthetic aspects of film language, including its favoured slower and ambiguous storytelling, and its interest in troubled, drifting protagonists.
The protagonist James (William Eadie) is a sensitive, quiet boy, observant of people and the world around him, struggling with the guilt caused by an accident at the beginning of the film as well as his discomfort with the traditional and troubling masculinity represented by his father and a gang of older boys in the estate. He does not share his father’s love of football, and rather than wearing the too-big football boots Da (Tommy Flanagan) gets for him, he inherits some slightly feminine looking sandals from another boy. His friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a girl on the estate who lets the gang boys have sex with her, is platonic but it adds to his sense of disorientation. The images of rubbish on the streets, the treacherous canal and the heightened luminosity of the fields surrounding the new housing development James escapes to punctuate what is the heart of the film: the kindnesses and cruelties of domestic family life, lovingly shot. A mount made of sugar, a delousing comb, a mouse trap, a toe sticking out of torn tights, a table sparkling with cheap party food, a tin bath tub: all these images perfectly coalesce materiality and meanings. The socio-political might have been pushed to the background but the film still mesmerises. It is a touching coming of age film with a remarkable tenderness towards its flawed characters, and an exceptional ability to make the mundane beautiful.
Ratcatcher (1999 United Kingdom 94 mins)
Prod Co: Pathe Pictures, BBC Films, Arts Council of England, Lazennec, Le Studio Canal +, Holy Cow Films Prod: Gavin Emerson Dir: Lynne Ramsay Scr: Lynne Ramsay Ed: Lucia Zuchetti Prod Design: Jane Morton Mus: Rachel Portman
Cast: William Eadie, Mandy Matthews, Tommy Flanagan, Leanne Mullen, Michelle Stewart
- See for example Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night, Sunday Morning (1960), Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Ken Loach’s Kes (1970) and Gary Oldman’s Nil by Mouth (1997). ↩
- David Forrest, “Better Things (Duane Hopkins, 2008) and new British Realism.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 8:1 pp 31-43. ↩
- Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Durham, N.C: Duke University Press, 2000. ↩