Fish Tank Andrea Arnold’s brave female take on sink-estate survival is a diamond in the rough Kevin Maher * Recommend? (15) Not since the early days of Jane Campion (The Piano) has international cinema seen a talent as fearlessly attuned to the primal female voice as the Dartford-born writer-director Andrea Arnold. Within the space of only two features and one Oscar-winning short film (Wasp), Arnold has articulated an unnerving, bleak but always compelling worldview where hard-knock women and sado-masochistic desires collide.
In her previous feature, Red Road, she pitched an avenging widow into a Glasgow tower block and a murky world of sexual self-hatred. In Fish Tank, she moves to an Essex council estate and explores the often conflicting inner and outer desires of a teen tearaway and wannabe street dancer, Mia (Katie Jarvis, pictured). A typical day in the life of 15-year-old Mia, who has been expelled from school, includes taunting some local girls, head- butting a rival dancer, trying to free a malnourished pony, narrowly escaping gang rape, enjoying some potty-mouthed exchanges with her precocious little sister (sample dialogue: “Shut up f*** face! “If I’m a f*** face, you’re a c*** face! ”), and being slapped across the head by her bleach-blonde mother, who screams: “I nearly had you aborted! Even made the appointment! ” So far, so Loach. But Mia’s life, and the movie surrounding her, suddenly dives into uncharted territory with the arrival of mum’s new boyfriend, a sensitive and attractive security guard called Connor (played by the rising star Michael Fassbender). The latter’s intentions towards Mia are seemingly paternalistic, but they appear to awaken complex adolescent emotions within.
Through snatched exchanges, day trips and cramped kitchen encounters, their relationship see-saws queasily into a simmering Electra. Thus when Connor’s appetites and Mia’s minor seductions eventually collide the repercussions are, naturally, profound. Related Links * Katie Jarvis on Fish Tank and sudden success ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form * Station row led to role for Fish Tank star ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form
In all this, Arnold draws flawless performances from her cast while making exemplary choices with her camera — she shoots Fassbender in particular with a fantastically lusty eye, casually catching the low-slung jeans, the navel exposed and the wiry naked torso. However, there are some cracks in Arnold’s methods. Her treatment of class is curious, and vaguely patronising. The attempts to draw laughs from trash culture values is certainly ill-advised. When Mia’s mother warns her girls against sullying their clothes with the line “Oi!
Those bloody tracksuits cost ? 20, ye know! ” it feels cruel and sneering. And the endless roaming shots of breeze-block estates can seem like lazy visual shorthand for dramatic credibility in a superlative film that is otherwise awash with it. The Cannes Film Festival anointed a new star today: a teenager with no acting experience who was discovered having a row with her boyfriend on a station platform in Essex. Katie Jarvis, 17, is a raw and compelling presence in every scene of Fish Tank, one of three British films competing for the Palme d’Or this year.
But while the rest of the cast and the hotly tipped director Andrea Arnold soaked up the plaudits of the cinema world, their lead actor was more or less oblivious to the fuss over her debut. Related Links * Fish Tank at the Cannes Film Festival ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form * Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank debuts at Cannes ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form * Cannes causes a stir with Pixar and Tarantino ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form ————————————————-
Top of Form Bottom of Form ————————————————- Top of Form Bottom of Form Instead Jarvis was hundreds of miles away in slightly less glamorous Basildon with her one-week-old baby Lily Mae and Brian, the long-term boyfriend she was shouting at on that fateful day at Tilbury Town railway station. “I don’t think she really understands what this means,” Arnold said. “Festivals and things are not really part of her life. ” Quite apart from missing the premiere, becoming a young mother might dissuade Jarvis from a career in acting altogether, she added. I went to see her about two weeks ago. She has got an agent and she’s been up for a couple of things and got them but I don’t know whether she wants to continue. I think she does but she’s just had a baby and that’s a whole other life. ” Jarvis plays Mia in the film — a headstrong, confused 15-year-old girl living in a cramped council flat, whose life is disrupted when her mother takes a boyfriend. Although Jarvis had never acted before she poured a lot of her own experiences into the role. She left home “a long time ago”, according to Arnold, and for much of the filming was sleeping on her sister’s couch.
Robbie Ryan, the film’s director of photography said: “That’s what she went home to each night. She was plucked right out of nothing. Andrea wanted someone who was the real thing. ” Arnold’s idiosyncratic shooting style probably helped Jarvis to settle — she films scenes in the order that they will feature in the film and never lets her cast read ahead in the script, which means that very little “homework” is expected from the actors. Rashad Omar, the sound recordist said of Jarvis: “I thought she would walk after a week. It’s amazing how she picked it up. arvis was tired out by the gruelling filming schedule, Arnold said, partly because she refused to rest at weekends and “would go out partying or buying loads of shoes”. “But on some level it was water off a duck’s back. There’s something about her that really did take it in her stride. ” Arnold, who won the jury prize here three years ago for her debut feature Red Road, had looked to cast a trained dancer in the role initially, because Mia’s only release from the relentlessly tough image she projects at home and on the streets is to dance, alone, to hip-hop.
When none of the actresses conmsidered by them seemed to fit the bill, casting assistants were dispatched to look for brand new talent and one of them stumbled on Jarvis. “She was in a train station in Tilbury . . . having an argument with her boyfriend who was on the other platform,” Arnold said. “She was giving him a bit of grief and so she stood out. ” At first Jarvis refused to believe that the casting assistant was looking for someone for a film. Then she refused to dance for her audition. “We had to leave the camera in the room and go out. She hates dancing. Jarvis’s instant journey from unknown to festival darling stirred memories of Sam Riley in Cannes two years ago. The actor had been working in a warehouse in Leeds folding shirts when he was cast as Ian Curtis in the Joy Division biopic Control. He went on to win a stack of awards for his performance and is now attached to an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road directed by Walter Salles. Fish Tank is one of 20 films competing for the Palme d’Or which will be awarded on May 24. Arnold said that the title was a ”good metaphor” for the film, which is set largely inside Mia’s mother’s claustrophobic flat. There’s a lot of life in a fish tank and it’s a small space. There is a fish tank in the film but it has a hamster in it. ” Andrea Arnold; Michael Fassbender; Katie Jarvis; Rating: * * * * It was clear from Red Road, Andrea Arnold’s darkly compulsive tale of surveillance and revenge in Glasgow, that a distinctive new British filmmaker had arrived on the scene. Related Articles * ‘I wish cinema could be braver’ * Fish Tank at Cannes 2009, review * Fish tank We need all of these we can get, so praise be that Arnold’s follow-up, Fish Tank, has the same confident signature.
The sinuous camerawork of Robbie Ryan prowls around a housing estate, this time in Essex, and the story is a collision course whose precise moment of impact we can’t guess. If this is social realism, it’s a kind with prickly cinematic voltage and no redundant lesson to teach. It’s tremendous. Fifteen-year-old Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is the film’s heroine, and rarely has a more scowling, stroppy, wilful teenager had the whole forcefield of a movie at her disposal. She lives on insult. “Call me back, you bitch! may not be the best-chosen words to patch up a blighted friendship; there’s even less love lost between Mia and her single mum (Kierston Wareing), who wants to pack her off into juvenile care. If Arnold has one great skill, it’s charging up the spaces between her characters – she can put two people in a room and make it seethe. When Irish charmer Connor (Michael Fassbender) walks half-naked into their kitchen for the first time, sex is added to Fish Tank’s miasma of tensions. Mia falls back on her natural defence mechanism – lippiness – but there’s clearly something between them.
She peeks into her mother’s bedroom at night, and pays Connor coy visits at work. His own status in the household is hard to read. Is he protector, predator, or what? Even by Fassbender’s high standards, this is a spellbinding turn, and the film shifts gears unmistakably whenever it’s around him. Arnold coaxes totally convincing performances from Jarvis, who ably suggests awkwardness and shyness beneath Mia’s keep-off exterior, and Rebecca Griffiths as her younger sister Tyler, a swearing tyke with an amazingly filthy laugh.
There are false notes here and there: a subplot about a local gipsy (Harry Treadaway) and his ailing white horse feels like standard urban fairy tale. But Arnold works wonders almost everywhere in this film: the drip-drop drabness of kitchen-sink drama is stilled, alive, and newly dangerous The moment director Andrea Arnold sets foot on foreign soil (especially in mainland Europe) she finds herself acclaimed as a film-maker of international stature. Her two feature-length films, Red Road (2006) and this year’s Fish Tank, were both accepted into competition for the Palme d’Or in Cannes, and both bagged the Jury prize.
Her short film Wasp (2003) won her an Oscar. Festivals the world over form a queue to bestow prizes on her. But as soon as she returns to her native Britain she falls victim to a distribution system that leaves her films largely unseen. Fish Tank, the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a troubled girl of 15 on an Essex council estate, who embarks on a doomed relationship with her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), is released here next month, but will not trouble the upper reaches of Britain’s box-office charts. It is opening on just 45-50 screens. By comparison, this year’s Harry Potter reached 586 British screens. ) It is likely to run only briefly at most of these venues. Related Articles * Cannes: Sullivan leads race * Cannes 2009: do see * Fish Tank at Cannes 2009, review Does this make Arnold feel like a prophet without honour in her own country? She sighs: “I definitely feel sorry more people don’t get to see my films. They aren’t inaccessible, and if people got the chance to see them, I know they’d like them. I wish cinema [owners] could be braver, or had more money to help them show films like mine. Fish Tank, like Red Road before it, is the work of a film-maker who doesn’t pander to audiences seeking escapism: the lives it depicts are as grim as the surrounding landscape. As for obstreperous Mia and her self-absorbed mother (Kierston Wareing), their profanity alone sets them apart from polite society. Arnold bridles at this argument. “I get frustrated because I feel it’s more complex than that. I got asked in Cannes a lot about bleak housing estates, by people [film journalists] who probably have quite privileged lives – nice houses, decent holidays. They’re looking at characters who haven’t got a lot, are living in poverty, and it annoys them, I’m sure. They don’t want to be reminded. But I’m not trying to reflect everything about that way of life, just a few people’s lives at a particular time. ” Explaining this, Arnold, 48, just about manages to sound good-humoured. Though she can be prickly – especially about the media – in person she is affable, chatty and down-to-earth, with a mane of reddish-blonde, below shoulder-length hair.
She first became known on children’s television, as a presenter of such shows as Number 73, and, although it’s hard to imagine it now, also had a spell as a member of the dance troupe Zoo who were regulars on Top of the Pops. She grew up on a council estate in Dartford, Kent. “I don’t think estates are grim places,” she says. “I love the communities there. People live close together. They’re connected to the world more than in some gated, isolated middle-class place. I know where I’d rather live. ” Nor does she find her films depressing.
She even perceives a strange beauty in the A13 from London to Southend (“The Trunk Road to the Sea,” as Billy Bragg called it), where Fish Tank is set. “It has different personalities as you go along it,” she says. “There’s empty car parks near Dagenham where the Ford cars used to be, and empty factories, but there’s nature and wilderness too. ” In Fish Tank Arnold also repeats a narrative device she employed in Red Road – finding shafts of hope in apparently irredeemable, bleak situations. Again, the sense of uplift is so subtle it’s easy to overlook. “It’s a very small way of saying life goes on,” she explains.
She is pleased that Jarvis, a first-time actress, has survived the Fish Tank experience – though when it was shown in Cannes Jarvis could not attend, having only recently given birth to her first baby. She was spotted by the film’s casting director on Tilbury station, arguing fiercely with her boyfriend. Despite having no acting experience she auditioned and landed the role of Mia. Now she has an agent and hopes for a full-time career. “I think she’s OK, and coping really well,” Arnold says. “I was worried after Cannes, because there was so much talk about her.
But now she’s doing interviews, getting auditions and offers to go to festivals. “She’s got a partner, her Mum helps look after the baby. I don’t think when we first saw her she could ever have imagined all this. But I hope it works out for her as something she could do for a long time. ” Arnold speaks as one who’s in it for the long run herself. She is now mulling over three possible ideas for her third feature, and has, she says, “offers of money”. She works on tight budgets: Red Road cost ? 1million, Fish Tank twice that amount. “To me, ? 2million seems like an awful lot of money,” she says. But it’s how you spend it. Instead of having a sizeable crew and shooting for a few weeks, I’ve fantasised about having the smallest crew possible and shooting for three or four months. That’s what Terrence Malick did with Badlands. ” (Malick, along with Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, is one of her heroes. ) Either way, she’ll keep working: “As long as you keep your budgets small, there’s a way of making films. ” And worse ways of making a livingFish Tank is a 2009 British drama film directed by Andrea Arnold. The film won the Jury Prize at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. , surely? “Yes. I’m lucky. ”
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