UK/France 1999

Reviewed by Charlotte O'Sullivan


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Glasgow, the 70s. A dustmen's strike is on. Two boys, Ryan Quinn and James Gillespie, fight in a canal. Ryan drowns, James survives. James notices an older girl, Margaret Anne, being picked on by Matt Monroe's gang and the pair become friends. One day James decides to follow his sister Ellen when she takes a bus ride. Instead of finding out what she's up to, he discovers a new housing estate being built in the countryside. James' friend Kenny falls into the canal and is rescued by James' dad. Plans are afoot to relocate some of the families on James' estate to the new houses, but when the inspectors visit his house is in chaos. James' dad receives a bravery award for rescuing Kenny. Going home, he's beaten up by a gang of boys and at home hits James' mother.

The army arrive to clear up the refuse. James returns to the estate in the country, but the houses are no longer accessible. Back home he discovers Margaret Anne having sex with the older boys and begins rowing with Kenny, who blurts out that he saw James "kill" Ryan. Later James jumps into the canal, but images also show the family arriving at the new house with their possessions.


You can't help liking Ratcatcher. Like the canal that dominates so much of the film, Lynne Ramsay's painterly portrait of childhood drags you in. You believe in 12-year-old James, all Prince Charles ears and snappable wrists. You adore his mousy mother. You're glued to his sister Anne Marie (her bouts of giggles erupt like the foam around a shaken bottle of pop). But does it work? Ultimately Ratcatcher is most successful when scribbling in its own margins. The beginning, for instance, is a triumph, precisely because it isn't a beginning but an end. We follow the progress of Ryan, an intense little boy who all of a sudden dies. James' mother hugs him, saying, "I thought it was you," her skin shining with relief. The audience might say the same thing: we are temporarily dumbfounded, assuming our hero, our narrative centre, is dead. Ramsay has shown us a horrible possibility right from the start. We obey the Darwinian principle: we want to back a winner.

It's when the film tries to be linear that problems arise. James' father's rescue of Kenny leaves him in a stupor. As a result, when the council inspectors pop by, he and the flat are a sorry sight. And for some reason this jeopardises the family's chances of relocation. Why this should be so is never quite made clear, but Ramsay seems desperate to push home a grim message: good deeds are rewarded only by punishment. In the same way, Mrs Quinn's sweet request for James to have Ryan's shoes results in destruction (a box of possessions is smashed). Still more importantly, when James' dad helps a little girl by holding her kitten, he attracts the jeers of some macho lads and is beaten up.

Another message seems to be that good people are masochists. When James saves his friend Kenny's mouse Snowball from Matt Monroe's gang, Kenny himself then tries to impress the boys by attaching the mouse to a balloon and letting Snowball drift into the sky. Unprotected, doomed Margaret Anne also chooses to go with the older, abusive boys rather than stay loyal to James. Most crucially, James' mother takes back his dad after she's battered. Not only is the world a predictably bad place, but everyone in it seems wilfully self-destructive. In justifying the grim ending, the plot feels contrived. As central narratives go, it's just too neat.

Even more disappointing is James' relationship with Margaret Anne. In a scene in which they share a bath the pathos feels strained and she fails to become distinctive - she could be any giggling, uneasy-bodied girl. So when we see her betray James with Monroe's gang she really does seem a faceless victim, the "poor cow" that Kenny dubs her. (The reference to Loach's 1967 film seems particularly inappropriate. In Poor Cow, Joy's need for leery male attention is allowed to exist as a banal, pleasurable kink in her character, not a pathetic flaw.)

This is a shame, since James and Margaret Anne's relationship begins so well. There's one gorgeous scene, for instance, where Margaret Anne, having been poked by all the other boys, receives young James. In one of the film's many powerful silences we see him lying on top of her, as if he'd been there for ever, his brain as well as his body at peace. And yet the real tension in his character remains intact. As usual, his small-adult desire is to protect - he's covering up Margaret Anne's body from the other boys' lecherous gaze, keeping her warm, like a rug or an extra layer of clothing.

This brings us back to what Ramsay's feature debut does best. Ratcatcher makes you see the world with bigger eyes, revealing the layers beneath every surface. We're frequently asked to notice materials in conjunction with each other: flesh beneath curtain fabric, a bathtub beneath plastic, a toe beneath nylon, spectacles beneath water. These textures don't cancel each other out, they just add mystery, blurring our perceptions. The pugnacious Ryan, who begins the film twisted in a net curtain, is visible but we don't know whether he's in pleasure or pain - from the twists and turns of his dancing mouth, his mood seems enigmatically extreme.

The film works in the same way, providing an impression of intensity without judgement. Thus what might appear to be an easy distinction - contaminated rubbish versus pure countryside - is made complex. The rubbish is dangerous, but it's not aberrant. It's merely another layer, partially but never entirely obscuring the view. The council workers make us realise this when they judge the Gillespies' flat negatively. They assume the family are also rubbish and can't see the mess as simply the surface of the Gillespies' existence. And it's the council people, therefore, who are exposed as superficial.

In the radiant scene when the mother cleans the flat we fall into the same trap, assuming this is the start of good, wholesome things, but the family is just as fractured as before. Similarly, and most importantly, the dream that closes the film - a dream of life, wealth and nature - is as real (or unreal) as James' possible death. Ratcatcher has two beginnings; it also has two ends. The dream is a layer of James' consciousness that neither covers up nor is covered by the matter of his drowning. A layer of material can be read as a shroud: a preparation for, and protection from, the ultimate nakedness of death. William Faulkner would have loved the slow burn of Ratcatcher, a film that won't choose life or death, but makes perfect sense of the phrase As I Lay Dying.


Gavin Emerson
Lynne Ramsay
Director of Photography
Alwin Küchler
Lucia Zucchetti
Production Designer
Jane Morton
Rachel Portman
©Pathe Fund Limited
Production Companies
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
Supported by The National Lottery through the Arts Council of England
Developed in association with BBC Scotland
Developed with the assistance of Moonstone International
Executive Producers
Andrea Calderwood
Barbara McKissack
Sarah Radclyffe
Bertrand Faivre
Associate Producer
Peter Gallagher
Pathe Development Executive
Ruth McCance
BBC Scotland Production Executive
Christine MacLean
Production Co-ordinator
Su Bainbridge
Location Manager
Pauline Ogle
Post-production Co-ordinator
Francesca Dowd
Assistant Directors
Nick McCarthy
Anneli Downing
Mark Murdoch
Tracey Skelton
John Armstrong
Script Supervisor
Karen Wood
Casting Director
Gillian Berrie
Camera Operators
2nd Unit:
Tom Townend
Nick Barrett
Visual Effects
Magic Camera Company
Visual Effects Supervisor:
Steve Begg
Domino Compositor:
Daniel Pettipher
Model Maker
Ian Kettles
Art Director
Robina Nicholson
Storyboard Artist
Derek Gray
Costume Designer
Gill Horn
Wardrobe Supervisor
Elaine Nichols
Titles Design
David James Associates
Malcolm Webb
Score Conductor
David Arch
Score Orchestrator
Rachel Portman
Recording/Mix Engineer
Chris Dibble
"Lollipop" by Beverly Ross, Julius Dixon, performed by The Chordettes; "C'mon Everybody" by Jerry N. Capehart, Eddie Cochran, performed by Eddie Cochran; "What's New Pussycat" by Burt Bacharach, Hal David, performed by Tom Jones; "Something Stupid" by Carson Parks, performed by Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra; "Cello Song" by/performed by Nick Drake; "Roobarb & Custard" written by Grange Calverley, narrated by Richard Briers
Sound Supervisor
Paul Davies
Sound Recording
Richard Flynn
2nd Unit Sound Recordist
Stuart Wilson
Dubbing Mixer
Tim Alban
Dialogue Editor
Richard Flynn
Felicity Cottrell
Jack Stew
Jens Christensen
Jens Christensen
Stunt Co-ordinator
Paul Heasman
Creature Feature
Animal Trainer
Derek Anderson
William Eadie
James Gillespie
Tommy Flanagan
Mandy Matthews
Michelle Stewart
Ellen Gillespie
Lynne Ramsay Jr
Anne Marie Gillespie
Leanne Mullen
Margaret Anne
John Miller
Jackie Quinn
Mrs Quinn
James Ramsay
Mr Quinn
Anne McLean
Mrs Fowler
Craig Bonar
Matt Monroe
Andrew McKenna
Mick Maharg
James Montgomery
Thomas McTaggart
Ryan Quinn
Stuart Gordon
Stephen Sloan
Molly Innes
Miss McDonald
Stephen King
Mr Mohan
John Comerford
insurance man
Jimmy Grimes
Mr Mullen
Anne Marie Lafferty
Bess McDonald
elderly lady
Leanne Jenkins
kitten girl
Ian Cameron
Brian Steel
Dougie Jones
Joe McCrone
James Watson
bus driver
Stephen Purdon
boy on bike
Marion Connell
Robert Farrell
Donnie McMillan
Lisa Taylor
Anne Marie's friend
Pathé Distribution
8,406 feet
93 minutes 24 seconds
In Colour
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011