Painting a bleak picture of outdated housing estates in Glasgow in the 1970’s, Ratcatcher follows the twelve-year-old James after the drowning of his friend Ryan, an incident in which James seems to be more involved than anyone has noticed. The bin men are on strike and the tenants gradually being moved to better housing, leaving behind the decrepit rat-infested tower blocks. Slowly the world around James changes, as his family wait to be moved on. He finds solace in rare glimpses of nature, as well as his companions; an older girl, Margaret, passive receiver of abuse from the local gang, and younger boy Kenny, steadily losing his young innocence and compassion, in loosely connected scenes showing the lives of those habiting the uninhabitable. It might be the 1970’s, but it’s not a million miles away from the Victorian era, with only outside toilets and beds shared between three in this examination of an almost unbelievable but true social housing policy.
Despite the perpetual depictions of poverty in the dank, grey, high-rise world of the housing estate, I found the film oddly beautiful. Ramsey’s film is carefully composed around shots teetering on the edge of long, strange silences, contrasted with a gentle humour that creates an eerie, sometimes uncomfortable watch. Opening by a canal, where the young of the estate return throughout the film, nature works its way into the cracks of the inner-city world. The first glimpse of real colour and light comes late to the film, when James escapes on the bus to a corn field, and finally there is blue sky. Children play with the rats that their parents try to escape from, and are fascinated by the lice that inhabit their hair. This might be a portrayal of incredibly difficult living conditions that are far more recent than seems feasible, but it also shows childhood, growing up, and coping with situations you are too young to deal with.
I love the unexpectedly surreal aspects: a pet mouse floating away on a helium balloon; Margaret using one of the many uncollected bin bags as a cushion to enjoy her jam sandwich, enjoying the quiet in this peaceful moment she has found. This occasional playfulness, whilst simultaneously dealing with difficult subjects, is what sets the film away from what it could have been in the hands of a lesser director: a straight depiction of an unkind world through which James leads us. He visits new houses, waiting to be inhabited, their furnishings still covered in plastic sheeting. He tries out the new shiny baths, the shining porcelain toilet not yet plumbed in, into which he joyfully pisses, only to see a puddle slowly appear underneath. This gentle, quiet, creeping humour remains throughout the film, sweetening the toughness, and reminding us that it is just normal life, a boy’s adventures, being shown. And it is also tough. Violence, death, drowning and discontent are inescapable, and in several scenes you really feel like you’re waiting for the worst to happen. This film strikes me as one of the most enjoyably uneasy films to watch, as you are brought out of prolonged calmness with sudden loud noises or shouts.
I watch this film as a stranger, an outsider not just to this world but also to much of Glasgow; to those who remember the housing estates of the seventies it must be an entirely different experience. The characters seem to watch on too, looking through windows, observing their world, and we see their desire to escape, as well as their children’s. The film steers clear of sentimentality, but shows subtle, everyday moments of happiness. This sometimes bizarre and unexpected mix is what charmed me. Slightly dreamlike, we see James’ world, and through this meditation on life in these estates, a representation of what was a normal world for many.
by Henrietta Eagle Wilsher
Watch the film’s trailer here: