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Ratcatcher: The Criterion Collection

Great cinematic dramas don't have to be sweeping epics; often the most compelling movies are also the most real. Cinematic realism is nothing new to the language of film, and it's been a particular strength of independent British filmmakers over the past several decades, starting with the "Free Cinema" of Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson, Ken Loach, and John Schlesinger. With Ratcatcher (1999), Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay assuredly can be added to the list with her bleak, lyrical look at life in a Glaswegian housing estate through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy. William Eadie stars as James Gillespie, who lives in Glasgow with his working-class family during the garbage strikes of 1978-79 (the infamous "winter of discontent" that was plagued by union disputes). Along with his two sisters, James shares his dilapated council flat with his father George (Tommy Flanagan) and his mother (Mandy Matthews), young parents who struggle to provide for their children — materially and emotionally — in dire economic circumstances. The film opens as James splashes around in one of Glasgow's polluted canals, only to get into a playful fight with a fellow boy and accidentally drown him. James is never linked to the death, but it continues to haunt him throughout the film. As the garbage strike ensues and trash bags fill the streets, James interacts with his family as well as other children, particularly a caustic gang of bullies and a teenage girl, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), who allows herself to be used for sex among the neighborhood boys. Meanwhile, as the Gillespies' housing project is condemned and the local authorities are relocating families to newly built homes, James finds a new group of houses on the outskirts of the city and dreams of living there someday.

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While not necessarily strong on narrative and more poetic in nature, Ratcatcher is a fascinating "slice of life" family drama. The best films of this kind don't merely function in cinematic or literary terms, but also serve to transport the viewer to a different time and place. Here, the city of Glasgow at the end of the '70s is rendered in third-world harshness, with boarded up windows, vermin-infested streets, and heaping piles of uncollected garbage. It's as unsettling as real life comes in a movie, but made more palatable by Ramsay's humanistic approach to her characters — the council houses of Glasgow are a horribly dysfunctional environment, but she illustrates how children remain children in nearly all circumstances. The fetid canal may be a health hazard, but such doesn't prevent kids from playing in it or trying to catch fish. Neighborhood bullies exist everywhere, and perhaps in this version of Glasgow they really aren't any worse than those in a wealthy American high school. One of James's friends, Kenny (John Miller), is an animal lover with several pets, and he proudly claims he's a member of the RSPCA and someday will own a zoo. But among the optimism lies desperation: Margaret Anne allows herself to be a sex object in the hopes (presumably) of winning a brief moment of male affection, and her later relationship with the younger James may appear odd, were it not for the fact that he's the only young boy she knows who can display an unspoken tenderness. Kenny takes great pride in his pet mouse, but after being ridiculed by the neighborhood toughs he ties it to a balloon and sets it adrift, insisting the rodent will travel to the moon (which is followed by a witty, surreal bit of filmmaking). For Ramsay, life in Glasgow at this time is not as much about living as it is about merely coping, best displayed by James's father George. The most complex character of the film, the role is wonderfully portrayed by Tommy Flanagan, who conveys the emotional turmoil of young working-class men through silence, emotional cruelty, and occasional violence — it's a part made more interesting when we discover that George is not as bad as we first suspect, and his lighthearted moments (a plan to paint the kitchen, a slow dance with his wife) only make the harshness of the city feel that much more overbearing. But as with all things in Ratcatcher, meanings are never explicitly conveyed. It's a resonant, visual experience bolstered by Ramsay's original career as a still photographer. Perhaps the most moving moment is when James finds his dream home next to a wheat field that stretches to the horizon. Journeying outside and running into the distance, Ramsay frames the moment through a kitchen window, as if we are watching a version of James's fantasy world — the searing, joyous image later contributes to the film's somber coda. Criterion's DVD release of Ratcatcher features a solid print of the film in an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround and English subtitles (which are highly recommended for American viewers). Features include a 2002 interview with Ramsay (22 min.) and three of the director's short films. Keep-case.

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