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RATCATCHER LYNNE RAMSAY (15) n

THE TICHBORNE CLAIMANT DAVID YATES (PG)

SET IN a squalid Glasgow tenement during the Seventies, Lynne Ramsay's debut feature Ratcatcher is a bleak portrait of childhood loneliness and lawlessness. It's also by some distance the best British film of the year, a spellbindingly beautiful picture that deserves the widest possible audience. With any luck it should get it.

Ramsay, still only 30, has created something quite amazing, an intensely personal story rooted in a particular time and place which yet achieves a poetic and universal resonance. You may not recognise the poverty, the casual violence or the ugliness of the surroundings, you may not quite decipher every syllable of the dialect, but its urgent feelings of grief, guilt and longing can't be mistaken.

The story's focus is 12-year-old James (William Eadie), a boy who has retreated within himself after the accidental drowning of his friend, Ryan, in the local canal. Estranged from his bibulous Da (Tommy Flanagan) and long-suffering Ma (Mandy Matthews), he befriends an abused teenage slut (Leanne Mullen) and a ginger-haired loner, Kenny (John Miller), outsiders like himself; when company becomes too much for him he flees to the outskirts of town where a half-completed development of open fields and new houses offers the prospect of an escape. Then it's back to the old life of rubbish-strewn yards, foraging rats, bullying kids and importunate rent-collectors.

Even within this harsh locale Ramsay finds extraordinary moments of grace. Her training as a photographer is right there in the opening image of Ryan wrapping himself in his Ma's net curtain, or the Andrew Wyeth-like picture of James motionless in a golden cornfield, or the shot of his mother and father dancing slowly in late-night shadows - these are picked out and framed with a tenderness worthy of Bresson. Other influences are readily apparent - the Ken Loach of Kes, Terrence Malick, Bill Douglas, Tarkovsky - yet Ramsay's film never feels beholden to anything but its own patient rhythms and soundings. Who would have thought that a boy picking nits out of a girl's hair could be parlayed into an act of touching devotion?

One might be forgiven for thinking Ratcatcher a harrowing experience, for indigence portrayed as starkly as this can make the heart sink. Yet it's actually an uplifting film, not only because of its lyrical power as a work of art, but its flashes of dark humour: bedraggled and dirty from plunging into the canal to rescue a boy from drowning, Da is also half-asleep and studded with peanuts (courtesy of James) when he receives a visit from the council officers who are to decide on their rehousing. You can almost feel the family's hope draining away as he stumblingly conducts the appalled visitors around their chaotic flat.

Every detail feels right. It's set during the dustmen's strike of the mid-Seventies, but Ramsay and her team underplay the period to such a degree that it might be set any time in the last 20 years. Her restraint, here as elsewhere, is awesome: the only bit of Seventies music to be heard is a brief snatch of Nick Drake's Cello Song, a world away from the usual flares 'n' glitter stompalong.

It also gains an immeasurable advantage from the unaffected performances she has coaxed from her cast. James's younger sister Anne Marie is played with wonderful assurance by the director's nine-year-old niece, Lynne Ramsay Jr, a triumph for nepotism if ever I saw it. No actor does a better impersonation of exhausted slumber than Tommy Flanagan, whose ugly-handsome face is made unforgettable by the deep scar running down his cheek. As for William Eadie as James, his pale, prematurely old face haunts this film long before it's over; James doesn't say much, and he doesn't have to, because his presence tells us as much about childish innocence and fear and inchoate sexuality as Ramsay wants to. What else to say? Good movies don't come along too often, and great ones, like this, are as rare as hen's teeth. Anybody interested in what cinema can do should see it.

The Tichborne Claimant is a rueful comedy of imposture, ably directed by David Yates and written by Joe Fisher. Based on a real-life case, it concerns the identity of one Sir Roger Tichborne, a feckless aristocrat and heir to an enormous fortune who disappeared in 1866 while sailing around the world. After years of searching, the family's African manservant Bogle (John Kani) returns home from Australia with a boozy old stager (Robert Pugh) who claims to be the long-lost heir. The Tichbornes denounce him as a fraud, setting in train a great Victorian scandal that stretched from music halls to the High Court.

Part of the film's appeal resides in our own uncertainty about the claimant's identity. Most of the evidence points to his being a bigamous butcher from Wapping, yet the man's alleged amnesia and the warm welcome his mother extends him jolts our conviction. Pugh and Kani (solemn as a death-mask) are outstanding as master and servant, while a supporting cast of British favourites - John Gielgud, Stephen Fry, a superbly bilious Charles Gray - stir up the underlying comedy of class and manners. A capital yarn.

AQ

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