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Revisiting 'Ratcatcher' Lynne Ramsay's complex portrait of pre-millennium Scotland


The complexity of the Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay can often go unnoticed, simmering beneath the surface, susceptible to study by only those who wish to find it. With unique hard-hitting visual creativity and a distinct emotional density, Ramsay imbues every one of her films with rich purpose and profound intelligence that seems to defy the limits of the film itself.

Though her recent efforts of You Were Never Really Here for Amazon and We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton took Ramsay to new heights, they detoured from her usual preoccupation with her home country, Scotland. 

Capturing the country’s fragile beauty through films of meticulous emotion, it is clear Ramsay has a passion for her home, analysing the area with poetic curiosity. This can be illustrated as far back as her short film debut of Small Deaths, showing small vignettes of a girl’s life that profoundly impact her development. Vivid and vibrant, Ramsay contrasts the viridescent hills of the Scottish countryside with a drab domestic life, as a seemingly unstoppable order of events consistently corrupts the protagonist’s life. 

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Carrying an almost ethereal quality that draws attention to moments that chip away at one’s childhood innocence, this is continued in the Cannes-winning short film Gasman, demonstrating a tale of confusion for a young girl who discovers that her father is having an affair. Seen from the child’s point of view, this strange new discovery is illustrated as scary, strange and bizarre, a dark fantasy in comparison to her previous life of simplicity.

Harsh and challenging, the Scottish landscape that Ramsay presented for her young characters was one that seized their livelihoods and greyscaled their lives to the point that their childhood was condensed and forced to adapt. This image became more rounded upon the release of her coming of age masterpiece, Ratcatcher, in 1999, demonstrating hope and despair in late 20th century Scotland.

Set in Glasgow during the 1970s, the landscape that Ramsay orchestrates is a bleak one, reflecting the realities of those living in the Scottish city who had to survive often without running water or proper bathing facilities. It is a city in disrepair, hindered by a recent binman strike that results in multiple refuse sacks being littered in alleyways and street corners acting as a visual reminder of the locations impending invisibility. 

With the world around him breaking down, we follow the everyday life of James (William Eadie) who witnesses the accidental death of his friend at the very start of the film and wrestles with his consciousness throughout the rest of the film. A poetic journey of the experience of grief from a protagonist who can not yet bear its weight, Ratcatcher is a nuanced drama that uses stunning, hallucinatory camerawork and uses of magical realism to excavate the mind of its subject.

Juxtaposing hope and stark reality, much like Small Deaths and Gasman, the protagonist of Ratcatcher explores a nearby housing programme and discovers a golden field of crops, running through the heavenly vista in a strange moment when reality meets the dream world. Searching for escape as his own community melts into the muddy banks of the dark Glaswegian water, Ratcatcher’s young protagonist finds a world of hope in a psychological headspace of optimism. 

Despite such stories of trepidation, fear and adolescent dread, Ramsay’s moral tales share a longing hope of optimism where personal agency allows characters to free themselves from such social restraints. The Scottish landscape she presents isn’t inspiring, neither is it particularly wholesome, but it is a land of opportunity, where any individual can make what they choose of their intricate lives.