It would be hard to imagine a film that is any more different from Billy Elliot than Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher. Released in 1999, Ratcatcher was co-produced by the BBC and Pathé, with support from the Arts Council of England. Although it has achieved significant critical acclaim (including selection for ‘Un Certain Regard’ at Cannes and winning the Guardian New Director’s award), it has earned less than a million US dollars at the box office. Ratcatcher is very clearly an art movie, which critics have described using terms like ‘visionary’, ‘assured and masterly’ and ‘hauntingly beautiful’. Yet they also describe it as ‘relentlessly bleak’ and ‘hard to stomach’: unlike Billy Elliot, this is not in any sense a feel-good movie.
And yet there are some interesting points of comparison between Ratcatcher and the other two films I have considered thus far. The central character, James, experiences poverty in much the same way as the other boys: there is never enough money, or food, or adequate clothing to go around. Like them, he is constantly ordered around, criticized and bullied by adults and older siblings (in this case, his sister). Like Billy Elliot, the film is set in the past, and in the middle of an industrial dispute – in this case, a refuse workers’ strike in Glasgow in the mid-1970s. The poverty we see in Ratcatcher is certainly more extreme than in the other two films – the tenements in which the action takes place are decaying and due to be demolished – although this is made worse by the vermin that infest the piles of abandoned rubbish. Like both Billies, James has a dream of escape, in this case to a newly built home on the outskirts of the city. Yet James bears a guilty secret, rather than a hidden talent; and the outcome of the story is (at least in one of its endings) bleak indeed.
The film opens not with James, but with his friend Ryan Quinn. Ryan’s mother is taking him to visit his father, who is in jail, but he runs off while his mother is not looking. Ryan meets James at the canal and during some rough-house play he is accidentally drowned. James runs away, believing the events have gone unnoticed. After Ryan’s funeral, his family is re-housed; and as they leave, Ryan’s mother hugs James and gives him the sandals she had bought for Ryan on the day of his death. A seemingly arbitrary sequence of events follows, but there are constant reminders of Ryan’s death, and implicitly of James’s guilt.
James befriends a girl, Margaret Anne, who is being sexually abused by a gang of older boys. In later scenes, James carefully removes nits from her hair, and they take a playful bath and eat sandwiches together; and when James escapes from the arguments in his family and goes to her flat, they sleep in the same bed. James says that he ‘loves’ her, but their relationship seems to be based more on a need for mutual comfort than on sexual attraction. Meanwhile, one day, James randomly takes a bus to the end of the line and finds himself in the outskirts of the city, where a new housing estate is being built. He explores the half-constructed houses, and looks out at the view from the kitchen window: there is an expansive field of wheat, blowing in the wind and reaching to the horizon. He climbs through the window and gambols around in the field.
One of James’s friends, Kenny, is given a pet mouse as a birthday present. After the gang throws the mouse around to make him ‘fly’, Kenny ties the mouse’s tail to a balloon and it floats up into the sky, where it joins a whole colony of other mice frolicking on the moon. Kenny later falls into the canal and is rescued by James’s father, making him briefly into a local hero. James revisits the new house, but this time it is raining, and he can’t get in. When he returns, he finds that soldiers have cleaned up all the rubbish in the neighbourhood, and the strike is over. The film ends quite ambiguously. James is seen jumping into the canal, and apparently drowning; yet there is another ending, in which James and his family are shown crossing the wheat field to take up residence in the new house. The final shot is of James smiling; yet over the credits, we see an extreme slow motion shot of him drifting underwater.
Of all the films considered here, Ratcatcher has attracted much the largest amount of attention from academic film critics. Much of this analysis focuses on the film’s remarkable formal qualities, especially its cinematography and use of sound. The visual style of the film, with its washed-out colour, owes much to Lynne Ramsay’s initial training as a still photographer; and the film contains several moments of quiet visual contemplation. However, these formal qualities also very much serve the narrative. While James’s sense of guilt is never explicitly articulated – William Eadie’s performance as James is largely blank and expressionless, and seemingly numbed (as Laura McMahon has argued) – it is nevertheless constantly implied through images and sound. The film is full of visual ‘rhymes’ which stress the parallels between James and Ryan Quinn; and images of immersion or drowning recur throughout (James’s sister, and later Margaret Anne, in the bath water; James’s father dropping a dead mouse down the toilet; James in the plastic-lined bath at the new house). As viewers, we believe we are alone in sharing James’s guilt; and it is only towards the very end of the film that Kenny reveals that he witnessed the scene of Ryan Quinn’s death.
However, these formal qualities also reflect the way the film is constructed from the child’s point of view. Extreme close-ups and closely recorded sound create a sensation of tactile intimacy: James tucks his mother’s toe back inside her torn stocking; he tickles his sister and tentatively touches a scab on Margaret Anne’s knee; and he playfully drops pieces of breakfast cereal on his father as he sleeps. We hear the characters breathing, the canal water lapping, and rain falling, with the sound of trains in the distance. Many of these close-up shots and sequences focus on children at play: James’s sister plays with a mouse she finds in their flat; James pours salt on the table and makes patterns in it with his finger; Kenny finds a dead rat in the rubbish and swings it around his head. The film begins with a close-up of Ryan wrapped in a net curtain, spinning around in slow motion, which also seems to prefigure his later drowning – although, like many of these other moments of childhood reverie, it is abruptly ended by adult interruption, in this case in the form of a slap from his mother.
At the same time, the film is also about the end of childhood, or its loss. As Lynne Ramsay herself points out, James is not ‘totally innocent’; and yet she argues that the film shows ‘the death of childhood’, or at least ‘a metaphorical death – the death of James’s spirit’. The ending is, in her account, deliberately ambiguous in this respect: if James drowns, it is as though he has ‘abandoned hope’, but even if he lives, there is still a sense that this is ‘a childhood that happened too fast’. Interestingly, Ramsay also explains that she chose to make the central character a boy, in the belief that boys have fewer opportunities for ‘emotional release’ than girls. James clearly does not want to end up like his father, and he tries to evade the bullying and brutality of the older boys in the gang. But his options are limited: even Margaret Anne eventually ‘betrays’ him by returning to the abuse of the gang.
As in the other films I’m considering here, the theme of escape is central to the narrative. To some extent, this is a matter of escaping from adulthood: as the film’s theatrical trailer asks (over a slow-motion shot of James running along the canal), ‘have you ever tried to escape from growing up?’ Yet it is more specifically about escaping from poverty. Throughout the film, there is mention of the hope that (like Ryan Quinn’s) James’s family might be re-housed. The images of the new house, where James plays with the building materials, and especially of the wheat-field, have an almost dream-like quality – especially realized in a memorable shot where the camera appears to float through the unglazed kitchen window, leaving the frame behind, and follows James into the field beyond. In one key scene, inspectors from the council’s housing department arrive, finding James’s father and their flat in disarray. ‘We have all the information we need’, they say on leaving; and James’s father subsequently blames James for letting them in, and covers up the visit from his wife. It seems possible that the family have missed their chance: James’s subsequent return to the new house is much less hopeful, although the ambiguous double ending leaves the final outcome unclear.
This oscillation between hope and despair runs throughout the film: scenes of brutality alternate with scenes of warmth and intimacy. Margaret Anne is repeatedly abused by the gang; but we also see the caring and chaste relationship that develops between her and James. On receiving his bravery award, James’s father abandons the family to go drinking; but then we see his mother dancing around and joking with the children. James’s father returns drunk, having been slashed in the face, and hits his mother; but later we see them dancing closely together to a Frank Sinatra record. The gang threatens to kill or steal Kenny’s pet mouse; but then we see the mouse running around joyfully with other mice on the surface of the moon. As in Kes, these alternations in mood are often marked via the use of music. Some of the bleaker scenes are accompanied by a sparse solo piano theme; and there is a more upbeat marimba theme that plays when James gambols in the wheat-field, and as Kenny’s mouse drifts up to the moon – marking them as moments of escape and release, but also perhaps of fantasy. In other scenes, there are moments of absolute silence, as when James simply lies on top of Margaret Anne after being encouraged to have sex with her by the older boys.
Despite its bleak and unflinching view of childhood poverty, it would be a mistake to see Ratcatcher as merely a work of ‘gritty realism’. The film has a very specific historical setting: one can find images and descriptions of the 1974-75 Glasgow refuse workers’ strike online, and the news reports included in the film seem to be authentic. As Lynne Ramsay suggests, there is none of the ‘kitsch nostalgia’ of other such historical films (a charge that might well be leveled at Billy Elliot). Yet while the sequence of the mice on the moon is certainly the most obtrusive breach of social realism, the film’s generally ‘poetic’ approach is very far from the documentary style of Kes. While Ratcatcher might be accused of providing an almost pictorial, aesthetic view of childhood poverty, it is also these formal qualities that enable it to capture aspects of childhood experience in a way that is genuinely rare and powerful.