Rat (2000)

D: Steve Barron
S: Imelda Staunton, David Wilmot

Entertaining comic fantasy clearly inspired by Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis which follows the fortunes of an ordinary working-class Dublin family when their father (Pete Postlethwaite) comes home from the pub one night and transforms into a rat. His shrewish wife (Imelda Staunton) is mostly angry and resentful at his lack of consideration, his children are alternately anxious and embarrassed, and his brother in law (Frank Kelly) elaborates upon the scientific and zoological peculiarities of the situation. But when a reporter (David Wilmot) comes on the scene proposing to ghost-write a book about the family's heroic struggle to overcome their difficulties, things take a decidedly different turn. Egged on by the Wilmot, the family gradually begin to conspire to turn the situation to their advantage.

Despite a tradition of literature in the genres of the fantastic, there have been few enough Irish feature films like Rat. Neil Jordan's predilection for surrealism has resulted in moments of dream imagery in the likes of The Butcher Boy, and Martin Duffy's The Boy From Mercury used a boy's visions of classic serial sci-fi as a metaphorical system, but Leprechauns and mystical horses aside, there has really been no sustained sojourn into this territory. It has now come from the most unlikely of sources, writer Wesley Burrowes. Burrowes made his reputation as a writer for television, working primarily on the long running rural soap opera Glenroe. Rat is a remarkably disciplined and very funny film which not only succeeds as a fantasy fable but as a suburban satire.

In the style of the best of Buñuel's Mexican films, it succeeds in telling its story with only a slight shift from normalcy to make its point. Once you accept the premise, which, as in Kafka's story, is stated simply as a matter of fact, the rest is more or less rationally extrapolated from there, including the eventual involvement of a would-be exorcist (Niall Tobín) and a finale with some satisfying twists which reinforce the thematic concerns. Though the story is universal in character, Burrowes has injected several scenes which capture the unique flavour of its setting. Though it doesn't amount to a documentary drama on working-class Dublin, there are many familiar sights and sounds which seem less forced than those in Agnes Browne but as ideologically loaded as those in the Roddy Doyle adaptations. Despite a hefty quotient of international production involvement, Rat is as Irish a film as it needs to be to make it worth a view for an Irish audience.

Irish born director Steve Barron is probably best known for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Rat sees him teamed again with artisans from The Jim Henson Company, though the scale of special effects is considerably less. In fact most of the scenes involving the rodent star feature actual rats. Animatronics and puppetry are confined to those where some form of violence is involved. This is not a special effects movie (nor is it really a kids' movie), and Barron proves he is able to keep things visually interesting without overwhelming the script (upon which most of the weight of the picture lies). Some good use of unusual camera angles and a strong sense of the enclosed environment of the family home make the drama more intense and the overall pace is well judged.

The cast are all good, playing their scenes with their rodent co-star with sincerity and conviction. Staunton is an energetic presence at the centre of most of the action, with Wilmot (seen also in Flick) appropriately sinister and untrustworthy throughout. Pete Postlethwaite isn't in the movie for very long, but as usual he makes a convincing Irishman when he does (In the Name of the Father, When the Sky Falls). Geoffrey Palmer makes a short appearance as the family's doctor. Despite the presence of several situational clichés, the earnest performances and solid dialogue keep it all together. Rat is probably the most consistently enjoyable Irish film you're likely to see this year (given the structural flaws of Accelerator) and though it is not the most original story in the world (though mind you there is a difference between a rat and a cockroach), Burrowes uses the setting to give it a freshness with makes it both endearing and involving. It may occasionally be too dark and talky for small children regardless of how it is marketed, but Rat is well worth a look for general viewers and should have a wide appeal.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.

Visit the Official Rat web site at: http://www.rat-themovie.com