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When a man really is a rat

Ciara Dwyer on how Wesley Burrowes's first film, Rat, has spawned a most bizarre lead role for Pete Postlethwaite

WESLEY Burrowes's first film is a far cry from Biddy and Bracken. The creator of RTÉ's rural soaps has come up with something completely surreal. It is called Rat and yes, it is as outlandish as its title sounds. The film has been a long time coming, but it has been well worth the wait.

From start to finish, Rat is beautifully bizarre. One cannot but admire the bravery of the film company which believed in such an off-the-wall script. It also prompts the question: how does Burrowes's quirky brain work?

On a recent Late Late Show, the man was modest to the point of humility. Pat Kenny asked him where such an idea sprang from. Burrowes simply smiled: ``People would ask me if I was working on anything and I used to say that I was writing about a man who turned into a rat.''

This line would leave the curious crowd gobsmacked. Burrowes knew how ridiculous and sublime it all sounded. Then one day, it didn't sound so mad anymore. Burrowes settled down to turning his brush-off line into a script. There was something in it. Hence, Rat was born.

Yes, it is as odd as it sounds. Rat is about a man, Hubert Flynn (Pete Postlethwaite), who turns into a rat. One night Hubert arrives at his ordinary Corporation Kimmage home. His wife Conchita (yes, even Burrowes's choice of names is classic) starts snarling at her husband for staggering home after one too many pints with the lads. The next morning, we are greeted with a breakfast-table scene. Stanley Townsend's wonderful voice comes from the transistor radio in the centre of the table. ``This is Radio Kimmage, the voice of the Grand Canal ... '' He goes on to announce that in an ordinary Kimmage home the Flynn household a man has turned into a rat. Conchita (played brilliantly by Imelda Staunton) glares across the table, to the plate, only half cleared of her hard- cooked fry. The black pudding remains untouched.

``You're not leaving this table until you finish that,'' she barks. ``You didn't best me as a man and you won't best me as a rat.'' She is fuming.

Then we catch sight of Hubert. This is the morning after his wife had snarled at him. And, as they say later on in the film, ``He is not the man he used to be.'' Indeed, he is not. Hubert's little white furry body is propped up in front of his breakfast plate. His whiskers twitch at the smell of the food. This is no Hollywood special-effects animal, like the mouse in Stuart Little. Rather, it is a real rat. The vision of the fidgety rodent is unreal because he is so real.

Burrowes's film excels because, rather than carry on in a stunned state, the Flynns try to carry on life as normal. This consists of delicious visions of Conchita looking perturbed as her husband leaves droppings on her lovely white doylies.

What will they do? At a family conference, they decide that Hubert will have to use the toilet. But he won't be able to stand up on the lavatory, he would fall in. Someone will have to hold him as he does his business.

There is the sight of Conchita and family, wheeling Hubert around in his cage in a pram. They bring him to his usual haunts the bookies, and of course the pub. He is served a pint of Guinness. He is perched on the edge of the glass, his whiskers tipping against the creamy head. The rat almost drowns as he dives in to finish the black stuff. And his wife has to wring him dry. His fur is dripping.

Rat is full of funny scenes. But Burrowes is first and foremost a writer. Every line is a comic gem: the next-door neighbour peers into the cage ``You can see the likeness all the same.''

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There is Phelim Spratt, the shifty literary agent (David Wilmot) who bamboozles the Flynn family into allowing him move in with them to write the story. ``There will be the film of the buke and the buke of the film,'' he says. He charms Conchita with his literary vision: ``The theme of the buke is the bravery of a woman defying the world.'' Conchita gets carried away with it all and starts suggesting titles for the book ``Think of Doris Day'' and starts to sing, ``My Secret Rat''.

Niall Toibin plays a cranky priest called upon to give the last rites to, and perhaps perform exorcism on, Hubert. ``Nothing vexes me more than to give a man the last rites and then he doesn't die at all,'' he spits out. And then there is his line of advice to Pius Flynn, the young aspiring priest ``You can't cod God.'' @@STYL el,4 @@STYL dropcap,3,1,pla T ALKING to Pete Postlethwaite about his role in Rat is a bit odd. For most of the film, he is a rat. But still, it must be asked, why did an actor of his stature decide to do Burrowes's bizarre film?

``It could have been wonderful or a huge flop. There was enough in it for me to do to make it exciting, for that danger to happen. Only Imelda Staunton could get away with it too. So, that was enough, really.''

Postlethwaite now has the luxury of being able to pick and choose scripts. This is the man of whom Steven Spielberg said, ``He is probably the best actor in the world today.'' Jack Nicholson has said that he has the presence the size of the Empire State building.

Postlethwaite is one of those rare actors who has never been out of work. He acknowledges that he has been lucky. And his face has a lot to do with it too. It is all angular bumps, pendulous lumps and rock-solid cheeks. His skin is a ruddy red. His looks are rough. And Postlethwaite can do both tough and tender.

In Terence Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives, Pete played the violent father who beats up his family. And the public really sat up and took note of the actor when he played the fragile Guiseppe Conlon in In the Name of the Father. But Pete has played other roles for real: he used to be a teacher. And for two years, he toyed with the idea of being a priest.

As for his teaching days, Pete looks back with mixed feelings. He felt the pupils were terrific, but the teachers were another matter.

``The behaviour in the staff room was a lot more childish than what was going on amongst the pupils. The things people take seriously, like if you sit in their seats or open The Daily Telegraph before they do ... You feel like saying, `Hold on, isn't life more important?'''

When he was but a teenager, Pete decided a life as a Passionist priest was for him. Against his parents' desire they didn't want to force religion on him he went to St Gabriel's College.

``It was a very sheltered life. I remember my parents used to come and visit. They used to hide in the bushes just so they could have a look.''

In the end, Pete packed in the idea of becoming a priest. ``I knew it was a sham, that I actually didn't have a vocation.'' @@STYL el,4 @@STYL dropcap,3,1,pla P ETE'S role as a rat is his most bizarre yet. But nobody could use the James Cagney line on Pete. No dirty rat was he. Not with Conchita Flynn knocking around. As the rat comes in, soaked in Guinness, his white fur turned brown with stout, she throws him in the washing machine.

``Are you sure he'll be okay?'' she is asked, as the rat whirls around in the suds. ``It's all right, I have him on [cycle] one.''

Postlethwaite still chuckles at the line.

* Rat is now showing at cinemas nationwide

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