September 13, 2009

Fish Tank (2009)


Director: Arnold Arnold
124 min


Essex, UK, the present. Mia, a fifteen year old girl lives on a council estate with her feckless mother, Joanne and younger sister, Tyler. Her sole form of self-expression is dance. Mia engages in an argument with some girls on the estate, one of whom she headbutts. Angry, she breaks into a traveller’s site and tries to liberate a chained horse, but is interrupted. One morning, as she dances in the kitchen, she is observed by Connor, the new boyfriend of her mother, to whom Mia is initially hostile, despite Tyler’s friendliness towards him. Connor spends more time at the flat; throwing a party, taking them for a drive – during which he catches a fish with Mia’s help and Connor tends to the wounds Mia suffers in the process.

Mia borrows Connor’s videocamera to audition for a position as dancer at a local club. One evening, when Joanne and Connor return home drunk, Joanne passes out upstairs. Connor asks Mia to show him her audition. They then have sex. The next morning, Connor has left. Mia tracks him down to his home in Tilbury, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Keira. Connor drives her back to the train station, but she returns, kidnapping Keira whilst she plays in the street. When Keira accidentally falls in the river, Mia rescues her and returns her. Connor then finds Mia and punches her. Mia attends her dance audition, but realising it’s a seedy club, leaves. Mia leaves for Cardiff with Billy, a young man from the traveller’s site.


Perhaps the brightest hope for British cinema currently, Andrea Arnold’s burgeoning career has been synonimised by awards and acclaim at every turn. Her short ‘Wasp’ (2003) won an Oscar, whilst her debut feature ‘Red Road’ (2006), made under the influence of the Dogme ’95 movement won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So the hopes for her latest film, ‘Fish Tank’ were high and she hasn’t disappointed. Like ‘Red Road’, the film received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, putting Arnold in rare company. ‘Fish Tank’ has already opened to very promising reviews in the British press, though it’s unlikely to crossover into mainstream territory, which is a shame as it’s a very honest, truthful film that shows an insight into a particular social class without resorting to patronising them.

The Essex council estates that bridge the city and the countryside are territory that Arnold knows all too well. ‘Wasp’ covered similar ground, focusing on the efforts of a poor, single mother on an estate to find a new boyfriend/father. This might have been set in Dartford, Arnold’s home town, but it could be anywhere to be honest. Arnold has disagreed with her critics who describe her work as leaning heavily on the grim side of life amongst the socially excluded. She doesn’t view her films this way; that although they’re set in these environments, they’re hardly ‘Nil By Mouth’ territory; that they focus on the lives of her characters as honestly as possible and offer hope. And there are also hints of autobiography here and there. Arnold doesn’t agree that estates are intrinsically depressing places and the film reinforces this.

The casting of Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia has become the stuff of minor cinematic folklore. Arnold’s casting director apparently witnessed her arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury and recommended her for the part immediately. It’s an inspired decision. Even amongst the professional thesps on show (Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender), Jarvis more than holds her own in this central performance. It’s by some distance the most impressive performance I’ve seen by a young actor. She inhabits Mia so completely that you’d have to imagine that Jarvis and Mia are more or less one in the same. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, capturing every aspect of Mia’s personality – her anger, her suspicion, her pride, her potential for verbal and physical violence, but also her potential for compassion, demonstrated mostly with her affectionate relationship with the tethered horse. Coming from a family where “I hate you” means the same as “I love you” and where a term of affection is “I’ll kill you last”, it’s no wonder that Mia remains guarded when faced with Connor’s friendly, warm demeanour. Jarvis has since had a child, so let’s hope she returns to acting and she’s some talent.

As the ‘relationship’ between Mia and Connor grows, demonstrated by slightly worrying moments of physical touching and the character’s accentuated breathing (through some neat sound effects work), there’s only one way this is going to go. Arnold allows this to be signposted a mile off. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us when the inevitable occurs. This makes it all the more disturbing of course, because we’ve had time to consider what will take place between Mia and Connor and even when it occurs, it’s extremely difficult to watch. What Arnold, to her credit, doesn’t do is try to explain to justify why Connor acts how he does. Whilst Mia’s family wear their motivations on their sleeve, Connor’s life is shrouded in mystery. Of course we never believe him when his mysterious ‘phone calls and seemingly being kicked out of home are because of his mother. We always suspect he has a family somewhere, but why latch onto Joanne and her family? And why then have sex with Mia? It’s hinted at some jealousy towards her relationship with Billy, the boy from the travellers site. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Connor’s departure sets in motion a peculiar revenge episode, which I’m not sure I found really convincing; from the way Mia was able to kidnap Keira to her seemingly homicidal intent. The positive byproduct of his departure was at least to facilitate a stronger relationship between Mia and Joanne.

Arnold and her regular DoP Robbie Ryan make the most of their settings; from the claustrophobic council estates that provide the film with its title to the evocative, wide-open spaces of the countryside, there’s a real sense of poetry here but never a fetishistic dwelling upon the seamier side of things. The relationship between Mia and Connor is also shot in a hazy, woozy fashion, as if reflective of a young woman’s sexual awakening, capturing the confusion and sensuality perfect. Complimenting the impressive visual work is a rich sense of authenticity and reality from the protagonists and milieu. ‘Fish Tank’ sometimes loses its way in its final third, once Mia discovers Connor’s secret, but on the whole it’s a striking, sympathetic film that largely deserves the reputation it’s acquiring.


June 3, 2009

The Resurgence of the British ‘Art’ Film

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 12:18 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

A 1000 word article on the current crop of more art-house friendly British films…

The British film critic Jonathan Romney, writing in the Independent on Sunday about Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and Terence Davies’ ‘Of Time and the City’, recently remarked upon a renaissance of the British art film. Described in his own words as a phenomenon that was “endangered, presumed lost”, it’s made a surprising comeback with a series of intriguing and complex films, including the two Romney mentions, but also Joanna Hogg’s ‘Unrelated’, Andrea Arnold’s Dogme ’95-inspired ‘Red Road’ and her latest, ‘Fish Tank’, Duane Hopkins’ ‘Better Things’ and the more recent ‘Helen’, directed by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy.

Each of these films was made on a comparatively miniscule budget, even as far as British film making goes. This no doubt reflects the significant risk involved in making films such as these; they’re hardly safe commercial propositions. But consider the kind of budgets given to more mainstream British films of recent years. The widely panned ‘Sex Lives of the Potato Men’ cost £1.8m to produce, yet scraped about a third back in box office receipts. Unless you count the safe bets that are Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis films, even those British films with fair commercial backing and potential wide releases are underperforming, or maybe audiences are just wise enough to realise rubbish when they discover it. These quality, esoteric British art films are operating with much fewer resources. ‘Of Time and the City’, a celebration of Liverpool’s history and the first Terence Davies film in a decade, cost under £500,000. ‘Helen’ managed to pull together a budget of just over £250,000 thanks to regional funding bodies. This raises questions about the nature of public funding; should subsidies be given to films that might financially succeed or those that have artistic merit? Perhaps it’s a balance that’s yet to be happily met.

This wave of art films owes a huge debt to British social realism, the genre that our domestic cinema does best. Think of the rich tradition that extends as far back as the kitchen sink dramas of the 1950s, the cinema of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh over the past four decades almost and the more recent films of Lynne Ramsay and Shane Meadows. These films documented the real lives of ordinary people and charted the socio-economic history of the UK and its political changes. These new films are doing this too; whether it’s the astute examination of the values of the Tuscan-holidaying middle classes in ‘Unrelated’ or the damning indictment of government policy and state security in Northern Ireland in ‘Hunger’. It’s difficult to imagine these projects being undertaken without the heritage of social realism in the UK. Leigh has satirised the manners of the British middle class in several films, whilst Alan Clarke tackled Northern Irish politics in ‘Elephant’.

What differentiates many of these films from their predecessors though is their devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema. This in part lies in the educational and artistic background of many of these film makers. Steve McQueen is a Turner Prize-winning visual artist. Sam Taylor Wood, who directed the upcoming John Lennon biopic ‘Nowhere Boy’ is an acclaimed conceptual artist. These film makers are making films with a completely different perspective, using their own artistic backgrounds in other fields to pursue unique agendas, whilst still making films that at least thematically refer back to the likes of Leigh and Loach. It’s this artistic background that also allows these film makers to make the most of the modest budgets allocated to their films. ‘Hunger’ features a single, unbroken shot that lasts the best part of twenty minutes, which would be unthinkable in a more mainstream film, whilst also using a powerful split screen scene with intense police brutality on one hand and the sombre reflection of a policeman on the other.

Perhaps the most curious example from this current wave is ‘Helen’. The roots of ‘Helen’ were in the short ‘Joy’, which involved the same premise. A teenage girl (Joy) has gone missing and a classmate (Helen) is asked to impersonate her for a televised reconstruction. Helen then begins to absorb aspects of Joy’s personality and almost seamlessly slips into Joy’s place, treated by her family and boyfriend almost as if she’s Joy. Amongst the entire crop, it’s probably the most ambitious film and by the same measure, probably the most infuriating and inconsistent. Clearly inspired by Antonioni, from the mystery in park, never resolved, that refers to ‘Blow Up’ and the extended evening skyline shot that almost feels stolen wholesale from ‘The Eclipse’, it’s a film that wants to take risks but ultimately overreaches, often requiring the viewer to suspend his/her disbelief to some extent and to withstand some erratic acting and dialogue, which may be deliberate. Who knows? Still, for all the aesthetical intensity of ‘Hunger’, it’s ‘Helen’ that first hits us as a truly original and vivid piece of film making.

Also unique about these films is that they’re mostly the work of first-time film makers, or at least relative novices at their profession. ‘Hunger’, ‘Helen’, ‘Red Road’, ‘Better Things’ and ‘Unrelated’ are all first features. ‘Fish Tank’ will be Arnold’s second feature, whilst Terence Davies, director of ‘Of Time and the City’ might be a veteran director but has found his career stalled on numerous occasions because of his reputation as a personal film maker of ‘difficult’ (read: commercially unviable) projects. Film makers often learn about film making by making films. It takes several films for film makers to hit their stride, to find a successful formula, to find the confidence to make their masterpieces. This generation of film makers have hit the ground running, approaching their first features with an exceptional level of confidence and a desire to make original films from the start of their careers.

Working with low budgets undoubtedly helps. There are fewer demands upon them to deal with commercial expectations. These films are not designed to turn a profit but to operate as prestigious features that might, with a dash of luck, succeed at the box office. Yet so far, the films mentioned have performed moderately, with none of them breaking out and exceeding expectations. Inevitably, these film makers will probably be allocated larger budgets and possibly tempted to working in Hollywood, although there’s no guarantees of this. These film makers clearly want to work on their own terms and dictate the direction of their films without studio interference. They are responsible for an exciting time for British film and one hopes that these film makers live up to the promise of their debut features.

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