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Poetry and Pathos Color Bleak Glasgow Childhood

Movies * 'Ratcatcher's' mix of artistry and social consciousness results in a new magical realism.


Bleak childhoods make for the best cinema, and "Ratcatcher" stands at the head of the class.

From acknowledged favorites like Francois Truffaut's "The 400 Blows" to underappreciated works like the Robert De Niro-Leonardo DiCaprio "This Boy's Life" and Jean-Claude Lauzon's French-Canadian "Leolo," films that let us into the push and pull of difficult young lives have a power to create emotion like almost nothing else. Even in that company, Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay's exquisite feature debut is something special.

A knockout in its premiere at Cannes (where Ramsay had previously won two Prix du Jury for her short films), "Ratcatcher" is not only made with unhurried artistry and unblinking assurance, it also combines two very different and usually mutually exclusive kinds of filmmaking.

Hearing that "Ratcatcher" is set in one of Glasgow's poorest neighborhoods during a 1973 sanitation strike that led to massive garbage pileups and a major rodent explosion, it would be simple to assume that it's wholly in the tradition of socially conscious directors like Ken Loach, that it can be summed up simply as, in Ramsay's words, "another grim film from up north." Nothing could be less true.

It's not that the writer-director, herself a Glasgow native, doesn't tear at your sympathies with her depiction of this pitiless environment, where tragedies strike quickly and uncaringly, where chances for tenderness are rare and elusive. With her ability to give every moment its correct emotional weight and an unwillingness to trespass on the realities of lower-class life, Ramsay shows the kind of empathy and concern that is heir to Loach's.

But, and this is especially rare for socially conscious directors, Ramsay also has a remarkable visual imagination, a gift for putting vivid, poetic images on the screen. Working with the same creative team (cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, editor Lucia Zucchetti, production designer Jane Morton) she's used since film school, Ramsay creates unexpected, even daring shots of lyrical beauty that go right to the heart.

Typical is "Ratcatcher's" striking opening sequence. It's unsettling and hard to read at first, and then we realize we're watching the slowed-down sight of a boy completely enveloped by and twirling around in his mother's curtains. The background sound is muted, as it would be for a boy in what has to be a sort of dream state, one of the few escapes from a troubling reality open to someone like him.

Out of the curtains comes 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie, like many of the film's child actors, a nonprofessional). His incongruously large ears bookend what has to be called a tragic face, one that seems to know instinctively the kind of unhappy life fate is planning for him.

It's typical of "Ratcatcher's" nerve that James' first post-curtains scene not only locates him unmistakably in his environment but also sets a powerfully disconcerting tone. No matter what happens to James during the troubling summer vacation that lies before him, what we've seen at the start never leaves our minds, or his. Living with his parents, his older sister Ellen (Michelle Stewart) and his younger sister Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr., the filmmaker's niece), James feels trapped by his surroundings, his actions, his very life. He's the kid nobody wants around, not his siblings, not the neighborhood gang, not even his hard-pressed parents.

It's indicative of "Ratcatcher's" sensibility that its character judgments are not schematic. His mother (Mandy Matthews) is overworked, his father (Tommy Flanagan) a problem drinker and a philanderer, but the love that once animated their relationship is quite visible when it's not overmatched and exhausted by the extent of their problems. The only hope the family has of escaping suffocation is a potential move to new community-sponsored housing out in the suburbs.

As for James, the only friends he manages to connect with are misfits and outcasts like himself. There's Kenny (John Miller), a mentally slow animal lover, and 14-year-old Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), the neighborhood's abused and victimized sexual mark. The unlikely bond she forms with James answers the need they both have for simple childhood innocence that is available to them nowhere else.

Ramsay's imaginative shot-making gifts make for a sublime result, creating a different sort of magical realism than we're used to seeing. "Ratcatcher" is clearly the work of a natural film artist, and experiencing her debut (helped by subtitles that the thick Glasgow accents mandate) is as much a privilege as it is a pleasure.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult themes, deaths of children, persistent rats.


Tommy Flanagan: George Gillespie

Mandy Matthews: Anne Gillespie

William Eadie: James Gillespie

Lynne Ramsay Jr.: Anne Marie Gillespie

Pathe Pictures and BBC Films present in association with the Arts Council of England and Lazennec and Le Studio Canal+, a Holy Cow Films production, released by First Look Pictures. Director Lynne Ramsay. Producer Gavin Emerson. Executive producers Andrea Calderwood, Barbara McKissack, Sarah Radclyffe. Screenplay Lynne Ramsay. Cinematographer Alwin Kuchler. Editor Lucia Zucchetti. Costumes Gill Hom. Music Rachel Portman. Production design Jane Morton. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.

Exclusively at the Landmark Cecchi Gori Fine Arts, 8556 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 652-1330.

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