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Lynne Ramsay's Magical Film Debut,
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This review is from: Ratcatcher [DVD]  (DVD)
I must admit that when I first saw Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher on its release in 1999 I thought it had perhaps been overrated by the critics. On subsequent repeat viewings, however, I have now come to recognise it as something of a (minor, maybe) masterpiece, providing one of the most outstanding directing debuts (of any nationality) in recent years.
Of course, if you are a fan of Hollywood, multiplex, blockbuster fare then Ratcatcher is almost certainly not for you. Instead, what Ramsay has created is a slow-moving, authentic, funny, touching and powerful tale of adolescence in 1970s Glasgow, as teenager James Gillespie (a near miraculous performance from debutant William Eadie) is struggling to come to terms with his drunken waster of a father, his stoical, but subservient mother, and his two (frankly, just annoying) sisters. James' life has taken a turn for the worse as he blames himself for the accidental drowning of his friend Ryan in the local canal, and his days seem to consist of an endless series of frustrations and confrontations, including with a gang of older boys and their 'confusing' (but sympathetic) female 'groupie' Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen).
Not only is Ramsay's film a stunning visual and aural experience, with impressively evocative cinematography by Alwin Kuchler and a sparse, but powerfully atmospheric, soundtrack composed by Rachel Portman, but she has also put together a brilliantly talented (mostly first-time) cast. In addition to Eadie's studied and naturalistic central performance, both Tommy Flanagan and Mandy Matthews are excellent as James' parents, particularly the former's visceral depiction as a violent, but tender, drunk, and the children cast are exceptional, particularly Michelle Stewart and the director's eponymous daughter as James' belligerent sisters and John Miller as James' hilarious friend Kenny. Ramsay also has a brilliant eye for her 1970s Glasgow milieu - from social (mother hiding behind the table to avoid the rent collector, drunken layabout father dressing up in suit and tie to go out for the evening, scenes of delousing the children's hair in the front room), political (scenes of rubbish-strewn streets as a result of a dustmen's strike, deployment of the army to clear up the streets) and cultural (daughter's love for Tom Jones in preference to mother's choice of Eddie Cochran's C'Mon Everybody) standpoints.
But perhaps Ramsay's most impressive skill here is the way she conjures up a whole series of magical scenes (veritable visual poetry, I would suggest), such as that where James gambols across a field backing onto a new housing development to which he hopes his family can escape their urban drudgery, or that where Margaret Anne submerges herself in the bath recalling for James the nightmarish drowning incident, or (my favourite) where James' friend Kenny attaches the leg of his pet white mouse (Snowball) to a balloon and watches it float away on its imaginary trip to the moon.
Ratcatcher is, for me, reminiscent (at various points) of some of the best recent British cinema, such as Ken Loach's Kes and Sweet Sixteen, or the films of Terence Davies or even Shane Meadows, but I would contend that Ramsay's film is less conventional and more inventive even than these great exponents of the art. Whatever, Ratcatcher is an outstanding debut film and one that I cannot recommend highly enough.
The DVD also contains three (early) short films, written and directed by Ramsay - Gasman, Small Deaths and Kill The Day - these are of variable quality, but are certainly worth seeing.