Original release: November 12th, 1999
Running time: 94 minutes
Writer and director: Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Tommy Flanagan, William Eadie
Lynne Ramsay gathered acclaim from her short films Kill The Day (1996), Small Deaths (1996) and Gasman (1998) which depicted a social realist approach, focusing on working-class, urban life in Glasgow. With her feature-length debut she decided to expand on these elements from her short films and gave us one of the best debuts ever made.
James (William Eadie) watches his friend drown at a nearby canal close to his home. He tries to deal with his tough life any way he can, harbouring some guilt from the accident. He develops a friendship with older teen girl Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen).
Along with social realist filmmaker Ken Loach, Ramsay has been associated with the resurgence of social realist filmmaking in the late ‘90s, with examinations of working-class life, some of which autobiographical, where her characters are often trying to get away from their lives, hoping for something better to come. James has a secret but doesn’t try to tell anyone. He carries it like a weight on his shoulders because he feels it’s just part of his life. Living in a cramped flat with his family, his childhood is something that he cannot fully enjoy but acts as a normal child his age should.
James finds it hard to relate to his two sisters, one older, the other younger, and he can’t really connect with his parents. His parents, played by Tommy Flanagan and Mandy Matthews, care for their children but at times don’t know how to communicate with them, especially James who is somewhat an enigma to them. James begins hanging around with a group of older boys and acts the part but his conscience keeps him distant, never engaging in the sexual acts Margaret Anne allows the boys to perform on her.
As Margaret Anne’s and James’ friendship grows, they begin to rely on one another for comfort. In a poignant scene James helps bathe Margaret Anne and then climbs into the tub himself where the mess around, splashing water at one another. It’s such an innocent scene that Ramsay let’s it play out longer than it probably had to.
Ramsay uses wide framing mixed with smooth hand-held shots to convey the characters’ cramped environment. The film is set during the dustbin men strikes of 1973 and everywhere there’s decay. The streets where the tenement flats stand are riddled with garbage; animal carcasses are discarded like old bits of meat. The sense of impending gloom is rife throughout the film, where the drowning scene is somewhat reminiscent of the scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973). James’ life brightens when he discovers the new council estate that’s being constructed far from his current home. He sneaks into the new homes, plays around with the bath tub that’s yet to be connected to a water supply and then plays in the field out back, running around, being free.
The direction is outstanding, with Ramsay willing to examine the smaller details of the characters such as James playing with salt spilled on the table and the blandness of Margaret Anne’s appearance. The cinematography by Alwin H. Kuchler is stunning, balancing the greys with vibrant colours when James discovers the new council homes.
Ramsay manipulates the narrative, playing against our expectations. She opens the film with who we suspect is going to be the lead character. She lets this play out for 10 minutes and James is meagrely introduced by the canal where the drowning occurs. This film works with and against traditional archetypes of the social realist genre. These ‘realistic’ themes and locations are challenged, particularly when we’re given a shot of a mouse travelling toward the moon! Ramsay plays with the notions of social realism and gives us not just a gritty portrait of working-class life but a more fulfilling experience.
The performances, particularly from the younger cast members, are outstanding. Eadie plays James just right, an innocent boy growing up too fast. He conveys his pain through his eyes and they way he always restlessly fidgets. His scenes with Leanne Mullen stand out as there is chemistry and both play well together. Flanagan and Matthews do what they can with their slightly underdeveloped roles but they both have a strong presence, especially with their interactions with Eadie.
This is one of the best British films ever made and a classic within Scottish cinema. Ramsay has grown as a filmmaker with her flawed yet interesting Morvern Callar (2002) and moved on to become an international director with her masterpiece We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011).
Kyle Barrett is a PhD student at the University of the West of Scotland. His research focuses on digital film-making and current developments within national cinemas. He also writes and directs several short films and is currently working on the web series Ferocious Bloodaxe.
He also lectures and tutors on practical filmmaking classes.