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Wednesday, April 18, 2001

That's, like, what living is like, in'it?

The tough-luck lads of British cinema



Ratcatcher Purely Belter

Rating: * * * * 1/2 Japanese title: Boku to Sora to Mugibatake Director: Lynne Ramsay Running time: 93 min. Language: English Now showing Rating: * * * * Director: Mark Herman Running time: 99 min. Language: English Opens April 28

So often, children in British cinema are plagued by unfulfilled longing, longing that, likely as not, stems from some small, innocent desire. We are privy to their dreams, but rarely see them satisfied. You can't help but feel outraged over the struggles of children in British movies, rowing their feeble boats against a current that insists on carrying them away into stories of injustice, abuse, bad plumbing, "never enough money in the house" and so on.

William Eadie in "Ratcatcher"

Just compare their fates for a minute with kids in American movies, who, year after year, seem to receive perks and privileges like execs at a Wall Street brokerage house. Amazing, isn't it, how the absence of Dickens and the presence of Disney can influence the course of stories in cinema?

On the other hand, the Brits have become an authority on the Art of Unfulfillment, and the message behind many movies is that fulfillment is more complicated and subtle than one likes to think. Perhaps the straightforward process of getting what you want is less interesting (and less fulfilling) than gaining a different, nuanced conclusion. Call it happiness on another level. Like asking for a gooey chocolate cake and instead finding a sketchbook with which you learn to draw. Something like that.

In the next few weeks, two works from the British Isles that trigger such thoughts and more will screen at Japanese theaters.

"Ratcatcher," the feature-length film debut of Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, is a lyrical, visually stunning take on a child's life in Glasgow in the '70s. Ramsay pull no punches when showing us a landscape mercilessly torn apart, then abandoned, by industry. There's been a strike among the sanitation workers that has spawned an overpopulation of rats. Still, the sky above is a stark blue and the wheat fields on the outskirts are golden. Discrepancy between plot and imagery is Ramsay's particular forte, and even during the key scene, in which a boy drowns, there's a poetry to it that yields more than just sorrow.

The story unfolds through the eyes of James (William Eadie), who was there when the accident happened and was powerless to stop it. James is torn by grief and guilt and is confused by the fact that all around him life resumes its normal course. His gruff and abusive father, a home that seems freeze-framed in "Hard Times" -- these things press upon James, triggering his need for another, sweeter world of imagination.

What could at any moment slip away into typical childhood-nostalgia material is held back and sculpted by Ramsay into a story that is at once charged with social message and fragile with fantasy. James' inner imageries are so remote from GameBoy et al. aesthetics that they're akin to science fiction: a vision of the world never seen.

Chris Beattie and Greg McLane in "Purely Belter"

Less complex than "Ratcatcher" but offering its own brand of poignancy is "Purely Belter." It seems quite suitable that this work recalls Chaplin (whose own childhood was spent in a London workhouse) for it feeds on the notion that one can be in the dumps and still find something to laugh about. In it, writer/director Mark Herman hones his skills as a tragicomic impresario, following the successes -- "Brassed Off" and "Little Voice" -- that put his name on the map.

In case you're wondering, the title is Geordie slang for "unbelievably good" and, in this case, refers to a dream shared by the picture's two teen protagonists, Gerry (Chris Beattie) and Sewell (Greg McLane). No-hope dropouts from single-parent homes, they see nothing that is remotely "belter" in life. Unless something spectacular comes along to boost their self-esteem and give them a sense of purpose, they're staring straight at ruinous adulthood and they know it.

So Gerry decides to buy a season ticket for the local football team, Newcastle United. Like everyone else in town, the boys are religiously crazed about United, and the 1,000 pounds the ticket costs gives the dream its hugeness. Gerry knows what they'll do when they finally secure seats in the stadium: They'll get a big Styrofoam cup of "hot tea, two sugars, dead milky!" And then they'll yell their hearts out with the rest of the fans. Purely belter.

To gather the money, Gerry and Sewell resort to everything from begging to pinching to outright burglary. They quit inhaling paint-thinner and other "extravagances." Every last minute of their day is focused on moneymaking, but it still takes a long, long time. Seasons change, small tragedies occur, and by Christmas the pair's secret stash is plundered by Gerry's derelict and abusive Dad (Tim Healy) and they're back to square one.

"Purely Belter" director Mark Herman and producer Elizabeth Karisen

Though Herman based the film on Jonathan Tulloch's novel "Season Ticket," he felt compelled to change the ending. In an interview he gave during his three-day promotion tour of Tokyo, Herman said: "The original ending was sad and hopeless, just as in so many 'working class' stories. I didn't want that to happen. I wanted these kids to have a little more in life, and, above all, I wanted to show that working-class lives were not necessarily rock-bottom tragic."

But while he has a knack for treating his characters with genuine warmth, Herman doesn't dole out splendid Hollywood fates. In "Little Voice," the protagonist is a genius girl-singer (Jane Horrocks) who has the ability to wow audiences but prefers instead to remain small, anonymous and with an unglamorous boy who really cares for her (Ewan MacGregor). In "Brassed Off," a group of laid-off miners foster a dream to take their brass band to Albert Hall and they manage to pull it off, though none of the real problems (poverty, unemployment, illness) are resolved. And Gerry's dream in "Purely Belter" is certainly nothing earth-shattering:1,000 pounds, plus a cup of milky tea, doesn't seem such a lot to ask for.

"There's nothing wrong with small ambitions," said Herman. "Small ambitions are a large part of what make the story interesting, but it also tells you about the British working-class psyche."

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen, who is American but works in London because of its "casual, filmmaking climate," said: "English directors making films about English lives -- this is a rare thing and harder to pull off than people imagine. Many successful directors just leave for the States. But Mark chose to stay."

Herman said this was material that "simply needed to be told," if only to address the importance of "football" in English working-class society.

"When I was a kid, football was the cheapest, most reliable source of relaxation. Fathers could afford to bring the whole family on Saturday afternoon. But now the big corporations have come in, raising the ticket prices, and men can no longer afford to pay for anyone's tickets but their own. Saturdays, the kids have no place to go. They have no way of connecting to the community. And that's a pity."

Consequently, "Purely Belter" provides the two boys with a small, unexpected happiness -- Herman simply couldn't "bear to let them go away empty-handed."

If we were meant to learn anything about "the working-class psyche" from it or "Ratcatcher," it was probably this: Life may not make you deliriously happy, but there's always a chance you won't go away empty-handed. And as Sewell says in the movie, "That's, like, what living is like, in'it?"

Working-class film faves

Whether working from the socialist/realist angle or trying to inject something more into the often sad conditions of "working class" life, it's clear that this field is where Brit filmmakers (especially of late) excel.

Here is a personal and prejudiced list of the best five:

1) "Oliver Twist" (David Lean) 2) "Kes" (Ken Loach) 3) "The Full Monty" (Peter Cattaneo) 4) "Brassed Off" (Mark Herman) 5) "Ratcatcher" (Lynne Ramsay)



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