Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature film released in 1999, is a coming-of-age film, which offers us an insight into life in a dilapidated Glasgow tenement in the mid-1970s through the eyes of 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie).
The overwhelming mood of the film is unsettling. At once characterised by the naivety and awkwardness of adolescence, it is also marked by a shocking number of traumatic moments experienced by James in a relatively short period of time. In one of the first scenes of the film, we witness the drowning of James’ friend Ryan in the canal behind the tenement. While it is at times comedic and nostalgic, threats to James, like the neighbourhood bullies and his abusive father, appear periodically throughout the film to put the audience on edge.
As the name of the film may suggest, vermin are a recurring theme. Seemingly endless piles of rubbish, which crawl with hordes of rats, are seen by the children living in the tenement as their new playground. Rats are such a common sight in the Gillespie home that James and his sister let them eat cheese out of their hands. In addition, the 13-week long dustcart drivers’ strike of 1975 provides part of the political context to the film. The strike escalated to such a degree that government ministers feared the outbreak of disease. As the film shows, 1,500 troops were eventually deployed to dispose of 70,000 tonnes of rubbish, marking the first time in 25 years that troops were used in an industrial dispute in the UK.
Also significant in the film’s political backdrop is the 1969 Housing Act, which led directly to the regeneration of many run-down housing estates. Throughout the film, an increasing number of residents move out of the tenement prior to its demolition, while James and his family patiently wait to be allocated a new home by the council. It’s clear that they need one: James, his parents, and two sisters all share one room. When inspectors from the council finally do visit his home, James expresses excitement at the prospect of living in a big house with a toilet and a bath.
We’re reminded constantly of the dangerous conditions that James and his fellow tenement dwellers live in. We catch part of a news broadcast which describes the “considerable health risk” involved in living in housing like James’, and, before the army move in to remove the rubbish in which he and his friends have been playing for weeks, they’re sure to put on masks. Even as recently as the 1970s, tenement blocks, such as the one depicted in Ratcatcher, were centres of Victorian diseases like dysentery and tuberculosis. The sense that the Gillespies and their neighbours have been forgotten by local authorities is thus pervasive. In this way, Ramsay subtly yet effectively conveys the classist undertone implied in 1970s housing policy.
However, her depiction of tenement life is not all negative, as there’s a clear sense of community. When James’ mum (Mandy Matthews) spots a woman crying on the pavement outside the block, she’s quick to go and comfort her. Groups of children are almost perpetually playing on the estate. Though the canal behind the block proves to be unsafe for James, it’s where he meets his closest friend, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen). Though crime was evidently high in Glasgow in 1975, the children’s families are happy to leave them alone with one another, comforted by the safety net that the tenement provides. Although the Gillespies are looking forward to the prospect of living somewhere more comfortable, it is clear that their crumbling flat has become their home. When James’ dad George (Tommy Flanagan), buys his mum a pot of paint to decorate the kitchen with, she remarks, with some resignation, “What’s the point? We’re moving.”
Consequentially, Ratcatcher offers a well-rounded presentation of tenement life. While outsiders, such as the news broadcaster and the soldiers, view the tenement as a squalid and diseased slum and its residents as a homogenous, poverty-stricken mass, Ramsay, by focussing in intimate detail on the lives of the Gillespie family, successfully humanises them. For its stark depiction of life for those inhabiting now-demolished housing blocks in the 1970s and the social effects of government housing policy, Ratcatcher is worth a watch.
Written by Sophie Comninos
O’Neill, Christina. “Looking Back: Army troops clear 70,000 tonnes of rubbish and rats during 1970s dustcart driver strikes.” Glasgow Live. 2020, accessed 4 November 2020. www.glasgowlive.co.uk/news/history/army-dustmen-strike-1975-rubbish-17323843.
HC Deb (18 December 1970). Vol 808, col. 1710-32. Accessed 4 November 2020.
HC Deb (26 March 1975). Vol 358, col. 1178-82. Accessed 4 November 2020.