Scottish director Lynne Ramsay delivers on the promise of her Cannes award-winning short films, establishing herself as a resonant new voice with her first feature, “Ratcatcher.” All the key elements here — from the dirt-poor milieu to the family of scruffy kids, hard-drinking father and tough, good-hearted mother — are familiar from countless British kitchen-sink dirges. But there’s a light touch in evidence, balancing the bleakness with odd lyrical moments and unexpected humor and tenderness that infuse the gentle drama with a bracing freshness. While too small to carve more than a modest theatrical profile, the film merits attention from distribs with an eye for young talent.
Opening with a quietly presented tragedy, the drama shows 12-year-old James (William Eadie) in a scuffle with another lad on the banks of a canal running through their grungy, working-class Glasgow neighborhood.
When the boy drowns, James keeps silent about his role in the accident. The secret weighs heavily on him, manifesting itself in occasional flashes of remorse beneath his inscrutable exterior and creating a hostile distance between him and his family, in particular his boozing father (Tommy Flanagan).
In contrast to the grim setting, made more squalid by the accumulation of rat-infested trash during a prolonged rubbish-collectors’ strike, the grimy canal assumes a quasi-magical quality, magnetically drawing James back to its banks.
He spends time there with slightly older Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), whose need for affection drives her to freely dispense sexual favors in clumsy trysts with a loutish local gang; and with slow-witted, animal-loving Kenny (John Miller), who tirelessly attempts to impress James. The naive kid sending his pet mouse on a death mission into space provides a sweetly humorous moment.
Impatiently awaiting the family’s approval for transfer to council housing in a better neighborhood, James takes a bus to the city’s less populated outskirts, where he spends carefree afternoons in a house under construction and a nearby field that may or may not be imagined.
But as the hope of moving to a better life retreats, these brief idylls and his tender encounters with Margaret Anne appear to give way to hopelessness and further alienation.
The story’s affecting final stretch is left open to interpretation, embracing both dreamlike optimism and subdued despair.
Writer-director Ramsay’s approach may be too unhurried for some, and the almost impressionistic drama takes considerable time to build. But the director probes quietly in a style both composed and unshowy, homing in on small, telling details.
More a film of images and nuances than events, it never strives for strenuous dramatic peaks but instead uses economy in observations such as the sudden shift from violence to warmth between James’ father and mother (Mandy Matthews) or the casual cruelty of children.
Visually, too, “Ratcatcher” establishes a distinctive style, with lenser Alwin Kuchler going not for the gloomy, gray look the environment would appear to dictate, but for sharply contrasted colors and close, unconventional camera angles that create a vivid world for the poor characters.
Together with occasional period songs that help establish the 1970s setting, Rachel Portman’s lovely, melodic score also keeps the film’s tone surprisingly light and angst-free.
Adult cast members are strong, but Ramsay’s direction of the inexperienced kids is particularly accomplished. Mullen, Miller — who has the face of a scrappy comic-strip urchin — and the director’s niece Lynne Ramsay Jr. as James’ sister all are natural and appealing.
Eadie is especially good, with an alert gaze that can seem either innocent or wily, untroubled or tormented.
The thick accents make some dialogue hard to catch, but the film generally is more easily understandable than many Glasgow-set pics.
For the record, Ramsay won the Prix du Jury in Cannes for her graduation short film “Small Deaths” in 1996 and again in 1998 for “Gasman.”