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There Is Only Movement – On Ratcatcher and the Cinema of Lynne Ramsay

Written response by Rafa Sales Ross

Children have a slippery grip on reality and an even slipperier grip on memory. What a cruel thing, then, that childhood recollections are the invisible hands moulding the sensitive clay on the kiln of adulthood, shaping a coming of age that makes or breaks the person that will come. 

Cruel, too, are the muddy waters that envelop the body of young Ryan Quinn, blocking air from pumping through his small lungs. His body is buried in a tiny coffin while mourners battle both tears and the putrid stink of accumulated garbage. It is 1975 and the bin collectors have gone on strike, causing the streets of Glasgow to turn into a sprawling labyrinth of filth and home to the hundreds of rats that name Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 feature debut Ratcatcher. 

It is here, in this very particular time and space, that we meet 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie), a lanky lad whose hands have pushed the meek Quinn boy into the mud. Ramsay chronicles James’s grappling with the trauma of death and the overbearing burden of guilt with a gentle eye, allowing for brief moments of youthful joy to infiltrate the gruelling reality of a working-class Glaswegian family in the 1970s as the slurry runs through the slabbed pavements. 

Much like James, Ramsay was born to a working-class family in late 60s Glasgow. Her childhood would come to inspire all of her work leading to Ratcatcher. Her graduation short, Small Deaths, seesaws through three formative memories of a young girl entering adolescence in a Glasgow housing scheme. Another girl, yet arguably the same Lynne, has her bubble of infantile innocence burst when confronted with the personified truth of her father’s double life in 1998’s Gasman.

Although her following three feature films would all be literary adaptations, Ramsay has yet to step outside of the themes she first explored as a budding filmmaker fresh out of the National Film and Television School. To step into a Lynne Ramsay film is to sign yourself up for a journey through notions of memory, death and childhood within tales beautifully framed by the eye of a filmmaker curious about what lurks underneath the often shallow surface of dialogue.

Ramsay, a photographer and painter before becoming a filmmaker, has a particularly sharp eye for composition and an ingrained understanding of the narrative potential of the frame. A hand holding tightly onto a phone cord, small feet climbing up bus steps, nagging shells plucked out of scrambled eggs. Such details, coupled with the director’s grasp on the emotional pull of sound, round up characters in a sensorial, extradiegetic manner — it’s a tangible, sensuous cinema to which we can return as a memory. It is cinema as a place. 

Ramsay was only the second Scottish woman to direct a feature film, with Margaret Tait breaking the glass ceiling with Blue Black Permanent in 1992. Tait’s and Ramsay’s feature debuts share many commonalities: on a broader note, both revolve around poetic notions of grief and the intimacy that can be gathered from quiet observation. Narratively, both films tell the story of someone’s childhood being inextricably connected to death. 

Many have labelled Ramsay’s cinema as poetic, commenting on her lulling composition and the breathing space she allows her characters, images, and sounds. This encapsulation of her work allows for yet another parallel with Tait, a poet before a filmmaker, whose many short films were created in tandem with her writing. “Ultimately, there’s only movement. Nothing else,” wrote Tait in her poem “Light,” a passage that could also describe the work of her countrywoman. Be it the frenzied scrubbing of red ink in We Need to Talk About Kevin or a man running through corridors in the haunting grainy security camera sequence of You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay’s expertise in stillness rarely manifests itself as clearly as when she captures movement — the tense quietness that precedes a rush of adrenaline, the paralysing nature of fear, the inability to escape someone or somewhere. 

Tait died the year Ratcatcher came out, a, well, poetic passing of the torch. That her fellow Scot would only be allowed to make three more feature films in the two decades since feels a tragedy, but still, somehow, a step forward, considering that Tait only secured funding for her first and only feature in her 70s while Ramsay was still in her 20s when Ratcatcher made waves at the Cannes Film Festival. The same festival would come to catapult yet another Scottish female director to the hungry eyes of international cinephiles, Edinburgh’s very own Charlotte Wells, whose exquisite Aftersun immediately drew comparisons to Ramsay’s earlier work and the director’s curiosity about how grief can affect childhood recollections. 

This time, however, it feels less like a passing of the torch and more a discernible proof that stories that feel true to Scotland’s social and cultural fabric can break through the still sturdy glass ceiling Ramsay has been fighting against for so long. And rarely has a film spoken so poignantly to that truth as Ratcatcher. 


Rafa Sales Ross is a Brazilian film journalist, critic and programmer currently living in Scotland. She contributes to Variety, BBC Culture, Sight & Sound among others, and can often be seen writing about Latin American Cinema and explorations of death and desire. 

#ReclaimTheFrame with Park Circus' new stunning 4k restoration of RATCATCHER, in celebration of the film's 25th anniversary, HERE.


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