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'Ratcatcher' is bleak film, yet compelling

RATCATCHER — *** — William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Leanne Mullen, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., John Miller; with subtitles; not rated, probable R (profanity, violence, nudity, vulgarity, brief sex, brief gore); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

Showing the stark nature of reality — especially conditions of abject poverty — is a pretty risky proposition for filmmakers.

In fact, the more downbeat the subject matter and material, the harder directors have to try to make their films interesting and compelling enough to hold the audience's attention — while striving not to let the whole thing collapse under the weight of what might be perceived as sheer negativism.

Nevertheless, that uphill battle hasn't stopped British filmmakers from flooding theaters with a wave of what might be looked at as depressing and despairing but socially conscious films.

Leading this charge is veteran Ken Loach, whose most recent works (such as the memorable, heartbreaking 1998 drama "My Name is Joe") have paved the way for movies like "Ratcatcher," the auspicious feature filmmaking of Lynne Ramsay.

As bleak as the story is, what makes this drama so compelling is Ramsay's ability to interrupt it periodically with moments of almost whimsical fantasy. Of course, there's also a superb lead performance by young newcomer William Eadie, who stars as the title character, a 12-year-old Scottish boy named James.

It's not an easy existence for James and his family. They live in squalor in some of Glasgow's worst slums, clinging to the hope that one day they'll be able to move to housing that won't include rats, lice and the other unwelcome visitors.

Needless to say, things aren't looking too good in that regard, so James gets desperate in his attempts to keep himself amused. That includes befriending, and then taunting, a neighbor boy — an act that goes horribly awry and one that also leaves him guilt-ridden.

However, that doesn't stop him from befriending another unpopular boy (John Miller), as well as Margaret Ann (Leanne Mullen), an older girl who's both an object of scorn and lust for the teens living in the projects. Nor does it prevent him from trying to find an escape from this drab existence.

As accomplished as much of the film is, where Ramsay really excels is in the staging of the fantasy scenes, such as a scene that imagines a rat flying to the moon (which is made of cheese), and another hauntingly beautiful sequence at the end that is open to interpretation.

But there are a few false notes along the way, particularly, the scenes that examine James' relationship with Margaret Ann, which not only seems creepy but also a tad far-fetched.

Fortunately, the strong performances by Eadie, and Tommy Flannagan and Mandy Matthews as his equally frustrated and unhappy parents, more than make up for that (as does Rachel Portman's beautiful score, which is more subtle than even her usually unobtrusive standard).

"Ratcatcher" is not rated but would probably receive an R for intermittent strong profanity, violence (including a drowning and and a stabbing), full female nudity, use of crude sexual slang terms, brief simulated sex (both overheard and implied) and brief gore. Running time: 94 minutes.