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"All my films have started with an image," says director Andrea Arnold.
"It's usually quite a strong image and it seems to come from nowhere. I
don't understand the image at first or what it means, but I want to
know more about it so I start exploring it, try and understand it and
what it means. This is how I always start writing." What does the image
of a fish tank conjure up for you? On the inside longing to look out,
is fifteen-year-old Mia. Trapped in a housing estate. Trapped in a
single parent family. Trapped by people around her she can't respect.
Trapped in herself. For being fifteen. She has her own inner world,
fighting to manifest itself . Fortified by cigarettes and alcohol she
can kick in the door of the empty nearby flat. A bare floor. Her CD
player. Practice her moves. A better dancer than those kids on the
block she just nutted.
Mia is quite content to carve out her own double life, f*ck you very much! Never mind she gets caught and nearly comes to grief trying to steal a horse. And social workers don't scare her. But mom's new boyfriend that could be a pain! A real spanner in the works. Especially when he's so annoyingly nice.
Under Andrea Arnold's hand, life on this inner city concrete backwater is suddenly very alive. Banalities become beautiful. Like sunlight through cracked glass. Vibrant, gritty and riveting, but in a way that entertains powerfully. As pulsating and funny as Trainspotting but without the yuck factor. Its momentum is overpowering. We never know what is going to come out of Mia's mouth or where events will lead. Each jaw-dropping new scene surprises yet seems the result of inexorable momentum. As if that wasn't enough, the story mercifully avoids kitchen-sink drama, excessive violence, drugs, getting pregnant, grand larceny, car crashes and all the other cliché-ridden devices to which cinema-goers are usually subjected. Tightly controlled, Fish Tank attacks with a potent and thought-provoking arsenal of story-telling.
Andrea Arnold proved she could do hard-hitting realism with her award-winning debut, Red Road. Here she excels her earlier efforts but still imbibes many of the verité approaches and senses of discipline that have filtered down from the Dogme and Advance Party movements. Her 'strong initial image,' or lack of subservience to more traditional methodology, maybe reminds of the devotion to experimental, avant-garde cinema taken by artists-turned-filmmakers such as Steve McQueen (Hunger) or theme-over-story technicians such as Duane Hopkins (Better Things). Michael Fassbender, who took reality to new heights as Bobby Sands in Hunger, here plays the mystifying and warmly charismatic Connor (Mum's boyfriend).
Arnold didn't allow actors to read the script beforehand. They were given their scenes only a few days before filming. For the part of Mia, she chooses a complete unknown with zero experience. Arnold spotted Katie Jarvis at a train station after drawing a blank with casting agencies. "She was on one platform arguing with her boyfriend on another platform, giving him grief." However the performance is achieved, Jarvis is electrifying. If Arnold wanted a 'real' person for the role, this seventeen-year-old takes over the screen with raw adolescent power. Says Arnold, "I wanted a girl who would not have to act, could just be herself." Fish Tank will lift you out of your seat and on an unstoppable flight, ricocheting against confines of circumstance and imploding a dysfunctional family with its head of hormonal steam. Laugh, cry, hold on tight. You will need to. I could almost taste the vodka, as Mia goes through her Mum's dressing table drawers, bottle in hand. I wish all British films were this good.
Friendless and unloved Mia (Jarvis) dreams of becoming a dancer and
when her mum's new boyfriend arrives on the scene, everything changes
for the teenager.
Fish tank is an exceptional artistic creation, based on the purity of Andrea Arnold's script and appreciative direction whilst a debuting Katie Jarvis excels as the troubled isolated teenager, and what a feature this is.
British cinema is some of the most dramatic and flinching cinema in the world. From Trainspotting to This is England there are always issues of realism and points to convey and with this 2009 appraised release we see more hard drama.
The opening sequence follows Mia around the streets, slurring and shouting abuse at anyone in her radar and the coarse dialogue and minimal amount of sympathy is staggering. As if you had been slapped, this will instantly startle you into realizing the type of environment and lifestyle Mia is living in. The language will give Pulp Fiction a run for its money.
Added as an attempt to justify the rural scene of Britain, Arnold gets it spot on as everything flows with little adjustment required. Everything is as it should be because everything has been so carefully planned, in particular the character development which will have many shedding a tear or two.
Katie Jarvis' cold and unappreciative style is spot on for the protagonist and as the film goes through hard fights with families and spending time isolated in a deserted flat, we see the emotional desire of Mia. The ambition of becoming a dancer is exceptionally well produced, owing to the fact that the background is effectively established. The hard family life Mia is living inspires her to find a way out and her dancing is her motive to break free. This really does work up a treat with twists turns, ups and downs and a staggering climax that adds extra spice to the picture.
At only 15 the central character certainly has a controversial agenda set for her. From sleeping with random strangers to drinking anything dangerous, Mia seems unfazed. Seeing her younger sister drinking beer with her mother in the next room will have mouths dropping.
Thanks to this straight forward no messing attitude the plot can move forward and tell the audience of what real life entails and the cultural state we are living in at the moment.
Some British films go out of their way to preach, such as This is England and Brassed off and whilst that isn't a bad quality, the enriching style of this film makes it flow and add extra drama continuously.
The scene setting shots are exquisite, as if made from a Skins episode without the teen angst. The scene in the car is excellent and not to forget this film boasts an exceptional soundtrack that fits the mood as well as 2007's Hallam Foe.
As an American who used to be a fan of British "kitchen sink" drama I
can say this film not only eclipsed those films, it eclipsed that whole
genre, which was about poverty-stricken males who vented their rage
against whoever crossed their path, usually females. "Fish Tank" turns
all that inside out. This is "grrrrrl" kitchen sink.
Katie Jarvis cannot get enough kudos for her performance as a teenager called Mia. She's angry at the world. She fits in nowhere. Her mother is an advanced-age party animal who resents Mia for reminding her she's a mom.
Mia's poor. In the U.S., she would live in the projects. Here, it's called council flats.
The plot is fairly simple ... at first. Mia falls in love with her mother's studly boyfriend. He knows she lusts after him. She knows ... The movie is not really about the outcome of these lustful/familial issues as it is about how Mia will overcome/survive them. The movie goes in unpredictable directions.
One wonderful observation about this film is the economy of scenes. Every scene counts. An American version would have included at least one music video. Here, no BS. Every scene counts.
And the movie is about survival. Kids can survive bad backgrounds. We root for Mia all the way to the end.
Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, say hi to Andrea Arnold.
The poet Rumi said, "A rose's rarest essence lives in the thorn." The
thorn is in full evidence in Andrea Arnold's compellingly honest second
feature Fish Tank, the story of a fifteen year-old girl's struggle for
self respect after having "grown up absurd" in the London projects.
Fish Tank, a film that is overflowing with life, works on many levels
as a look into squalid economic and social conditions in small town
Britain, as a warning to those who act impulsively and without
self-control, and as a coming-of-age story that allows us to experience
a genuine sense of character growth. Winner of the Jury Prize at the
2009 Cannes Film Festival, the film features an astounding performance
from first-time actress Katie Jarvis, a 17-year-old who was discovered
by the director while having an argument with her boyfriend on an Essex
train station platform.
Set in a bleak housing project in a working class London suburb, fifteen-year-old Mia is an angry, isolated but vulnerable teen who lives with her boozy mom (Koerston Wareing) and little sister Tyler (an adorable Rebecca Griffiths). Mia has no friends and is dogged by a mean-spirited mother who makes Mo'Nique in Precious look like Mother Teresa. Filled with barely controlled rage, Mia seems uncertain as to whether she is looking for a fight or for sex. She goes from head-butting a rival on the playground to struggling to free a half-starved horse tied up in a junkyard while cozying up to the horse's owner Billy (Harry Treadway), a gentle 19-year-old who seems genuinely interested.
Dreaming of becoming a dancer, Mia breaks into an abandoned apartment and practices her hip-hop dance routines alone to borrowed CDs of pop music including California Dreaming, the only time when she can feel good about herself. Mia's first taste of something resembling kindness happens when her mother brings home a sexy, shirtless Irish lover named Connor (Michael Fassbender) who works as a security guard Fassbender's performance oscillates between the charming and the shady and we do not know who is real and who is pretend and where it will lead. Mia has more than a passing interest in him, revealed by her deep glances and facial expressions.
When Connor lends Mia his camera to film her dancing in preparation for an audition, she uses it to spy on Connor and her mom making love. One of the loveliest scenes is when Connor carries a drunken Mia from the living room and puts her to bed, gently taking off her clothes while Mia, pretending to be asleep, sneaks an occasional peak and is obviously enjoying the moment. Although Connor's interest in Mia appears innocent, from the time Mia cuts her foot on a family fishing trip and Connor gives her a piggy back ride to the car, tension gradually builds until it explodes in a seduction that is not only inappropriate but has serious consequences.
Fish Tank is a strong and unpredictable film because Mia is a strong (though flawed) character who refuses to allow her miserable circumstances to control her life. Arnold uses the fierce slang of the streets, overt sexual encounters, and gritty hand-held camera-work to tell an authentic story of adolescence that in lesser hands might have recycled genre clichés, provided a falsely uplifting message, or offered a sentimentalized view of poverty. That the film opens the door long enough to provide a breath of fresh air once again tells us that life can be governed by what is possible rather than what is reasonable and Fish Tank, instead of becoming another sordid study of pathology, becomes an exhilarating dance of liberation.
At first I wasn't sure what to make of this movie. Having watched "Red
Road" by Andrea Arnold, I needed to watch Fishtank. It wasn't quite as
good as Red Road but somehow it had something that mesmerised me. The
movie tells of a 15 year old girl living in a rather socially deprived
area of Britain who is passionate about dancing. Her mother is a drunk
and brings home a new boyfriend one day.
Right from the start there are scenes that are hard to take. These scenes felt quite real for me, maybe thanks to the Director or the acting. There is not much of a storyline other than that the girl gets involved with her mother's boyfriend and everything gets even worse after that.
I thought that Michael Fassbender's performance was brilliant. He seems to be star in the making.
This movie makes difficult watching because of the harshness of the lives that are depicted here.
There's a lot of great content here in this movie and it's already been
rightly praised in almost all corners but when I started watching Fish
Tank I started to get worried. The first 10-15 minutes were very
reminiscent of Thirteen for me and I hated Thirteen with my reasoning
being thus: I dislike annoying teeny girls in real life so why would I
want to spend the duration of a movie stuck with them? Drama is
supposed to be "life with the dull bits cut out" and while we can often
handle masses of detail and indeed endure movies with unlikeable
characters they have to be done in such a way that it doesn't become a
Then Fish Tank changes gear and, throughout the course of the movie, it does so two or three times in ways both surprising and loaded with provocative moments.
The basic story is all about Mia, a tough young teenager who seems not to have ever been given any confidence in the future her path could take and so lashes out at anyone around her while momentarily escaping into the pleasure of dancing by herself in a vacant flat. Her mother is a drunken woman who clearly doesn't want her kids around whenever she has a chance to party and her younger sister is just, well, used to things and acts accordingly. But things look up when the mother brings home a fella (Connor, played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) who actually treats the girls with a bit of kindness and shows them encouragement, especially encouraging Mia's dancing ability.
The core of the movie focuses on Mia's feelings for Connor. Here is a man who can treat her both as a daughter and as an equal, depending on the circumstances, and this is clearly a first for her. Torn between wanting to reclaim lost moments of childhood and embracing her upcoming adult life, Mia is confused and veers between happiness and resentment. Every little girl wants to be a princess at times, like Rapunzel waiting to be whisked away, but some only end up ironically letting their hair down too far.
Performances across the board are strong, with Michael Fassbender and Harry Treadaway being as good as ever and Katie Jarvis simply brilliant in her first feature role, and the direction by Andrea Arnold (working from her own screenplay) manages to keep things just about bearable even as characters try to ruin their own happiness or the happiness of others. The camera-work and sound are at times intrusive while in other moments keep back a little from events, mixing things up so that we get a chance to breathe as the tribulations of life threaten to stifle certain people caught up in events.
For me, personally, I must say that I didn't like the way certain situations developed but the movie serves as a reminder of life and the range of possibilities contained within each and every human being. And I must add that, despite my disappointment with parts of the movie, the whole thing adds up to something pretty great and I never expected to be quite so tense during a last half hour that I'm sure will have many on the edge of their seats. Powerful stuff.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I just watched this in the Grand Lumiere theatre at Cannes FF, a
brilliant experience and a fantastic film! What struck me immediately
was the use of natural light in this film. It really had that feeling
that you were there and there were none of the typical Hollywood looks
to people and sets. It had a very British feel, very much in the vein
of Loach's Kes.
having discovered the story behind Jarvis the female lead, it makes the whole performance more astonishing and remarkable. The angry teenager has never been done more convincingly in my opinion, even though my daughter can at times be a close second! There must be young hopefuls in drama schools around the country literally gutted that they have devoted their young lives and untold money to this art but been trounced by an absolute beginner in a role she was obviously made for, whether she knew it or not.
The environment was nasty, you could smell the urine in the corridors, feel the poverty amongst the residents and imagine the boredom of the children. One thing that did occur to me at the start of this film was that Mia wasn't great at dancing. I first thought that if this was a film about how dancing would save her, she would either need to get good quickly or it would be a serious fail.
The male lead, Connor (Fassbender) appears early on as another of Mia's mothers' 'pulls' from the local pub or club. The sexual tension is evident from the start but it doesn't stop Mia from rifling his wallet for money within minutes of meeting him! The mother is stereotypically perfect, the lush who drinks to excess yet tries in vain to preserve her looks with botox and yards of makeup and bleach. It's not clear what she does but suffice to say, not very much, particularly in the parenting department.
Finally we have Sophie, Mias sister. For me she was the comic relief, raising the film above total hopelessness and depression with her funny comments, observations and innocent (ish) take on things. It's hard to imagine the words were put in her mouth as they seem so natural. Whilst in Cannes watching this film it was evident that much of the dialogue went over the audiences head. When we heard the (obligatory staff) dog was called Tennants, we laughed out loud, but we laughed alone! The film just seemed to tick along effortlessly. The scenes with Connor and Mia where bursting with tension and the inevitable coupling just a matter of time. However there were times, for instance the spanking scene with Connor in the bedroom, where it seemed that Mia had experienced something similar and it had adversely affected her. It wasn't clear whether Connor represented an abusive father figure who she couldn't help but fall for or whether she was just a curious teenager, having seen him and her mother having sex through the door one night.
Very difficult to find fault with this film, even if you were looking. The performances were believable, the camera work although almost exclusively hand-held was not jarring and just helped convey the realness of the piece. Lens flares, exposure issues, focus etc, all leant to the genuine feel and put you right there. Even the ending rounded up the film perfectly and I'm glad she wasn't going to win any dancing competitions and get a job in the West End! Great achievement, surely the Palm D'or must belong to Andrea Arnold this year for a brilliantly portrayed glimpse of life as an East End teenager in London and for such a little amount of money! (£2m)
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Sixteen is not a good age for horses. And fifteen is proving equally
difficult for Mia. Fifteen going on 50, Mia lives an isolated,
disaffected life. A school drop-out, labelled weird and smelly by her
peers, she is neglected by her single-parent mother and converses at a
bawl with her younger sister, who is 8 going on 40. Mia haunts the
high-rise she calls home, sneaking alcohol and ciggies where she can
get them. Her only pleasure is dance, which she practices solo in an
upstairs derelict flat. Something has to change, and the catalyst
proves to be Mum's new boyfriend. Both creepy and charming in the
manner of David from An Education, the boyfriend seems to take Mia
seriously. Perhaps too seriously.
Fassbender excels as the charismatic interloper. He is always the smartest - and best-looking - guy in the room, without rubbing your nose in it. When he does lose control, we unfortunately cannot view his reaction because he is only seen in silhouette. Having seen him in Hunger and Inglorious Basterds, he clearly has chameleon-like abilities.
The film moves along a tad too slowly, teasing out the will-they-won't-they relationship between Mia and the boyfriend. Once that is resolved the pace becomes frantic, and the consequences that follow are harrowing.
The British underclass seems to be Arnold's setting of choice. I am not convinced she is at home here, or even that she has spent much time amongst the people she loves to represent on screen. Mia's younger sister, especially, seems archetypical - a can of beer in one hand, a ciggie in the other, expletives falling freely from her mouth, she does not seem to be anything other than a Daily Mail reader's portrait of Britain's feral kids. Mia, also, seems to spend 24/7 in a rage. A more tempered view, even a spot of gallows's humour, would make this arena more believable. There is a bit of a sneer here from the writer-director that is distasteful. I am also sceptical about the Katie Jarvis hype - she does well, but there is nothing in the role to suggest a trained actress could not have handled it. Of course, casting a trained actress would not have generated so much press as the fighting-with-her-boyfriend-at-the-platform story....
All that is forgiven, however, for one sequence that is among the most viscerally compelling I have ever seen on screen. It takes place when Mia is at her lowest ebb, and decides on an action that is less than half-thought out. It is completely understandable given all that has gone before, but connotes Jamie Bulger, Soham, and a host of other unspeakable acts from the cultural memory. Shot verite style, raw and unforgiving, the sequence is a masterclass in how to put an audience through an emotional wringer. The building rhythm of a little girl going up and down on a scooter. A ferocious splash in the ocean. An eternity before re-surfacing. Even the memory of it has me sweating from the palms. Brave, sublime filmmaking.
There are other small moments - three generations of women dancing, a horse spied from a road - that suggest a mature, accomplished style is evolving in Arnold. Wasp was well-executed. Red Road I just found incredulous. Fish Tank has subtlety and bombast, not always in the right mix, but courageously attempted. I will come back to Arnold. Hopefully, one day she will turn her scorn on the tax-dodging upper class who are equally Britain's trial and shame.
If you think England is only good for turning out glossy, romantic films adapted from their classic novels,guess again. England has long become a staple for some grim,gritty,edgy stories of the darker side of the human condition (with an emphasis on the working class---I guess they're channeling the Charles Dickens within them). Recent films such as 'Nil By Mouth',and 'Ratcatcher' have cemented this reputation. Now add Andrea Arnold's equally harrowing tale of existential despair, 'Fish Tank'. The story centers on Mia,a scrappy 15 year old girl,played with gusto by Kate Jarvis. Mia has an attitude problem,a short fuse,and has no problem solving adverse issues with her fists (evidant by an altercation in the film's opening with another girl,where Mia head butts her,giving the other girl a bloody nose),or her mouth (she has no problem cussing out anyone who crosses her path,including her Mother & little sister,who also boast of filthy mouths). Mia's big dream is to become a big time Hip Hop dancer & is always practicing her dance moves. Things take a turn for Mia's worse when her mom brings home a new boyfriend (Michael Fassbinder),who has less than wholesome designs for young Mia. Along the way,Mia attempts to make friends with an older boy who is in the process of restoring an automobile. As with other girl's her age,Mia experiments with the usual attractions:alcohol,drugs,sex,etc. All of this makes for a film that is not always easy to watch,but easy to admire for it's bravura. Andrea Arnold ('Red Road'and several made for British television projects)writes & directs this kitchen sink view of the British working class. Prepare yourself to get kicked in the stomach for 123 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA,this film contains pervasive strong language,an outburst of violence,flashes of nudity & sexual situation,including abhorrent adult behaviour involving a minor. Not for the little ones.
Considering how much positive word of mouth it got, Fish Tank came and
went pretty sharpish in most cinemas even those in a larger city such
as where I live. This was a shame as it meant I had to keep an eye out
to eventually catch the film. Set on a council estate things are
typically grim and within the first few minutes of the film we are
treated to sudden violence and extreme language all seemingly par for
the course rather than being something special that we are witnessing.
In this world lives Mia, a 15 year old who lives with a younger sister
and a mother who appears to be not much older than her. She gets in
fights and practises dancing by herself in an abandoned flat near her
own. Her life appears to change for the better when her mother gets a
new boyfriend who is friendly, good fun and is not put off by the
sudden aggression that is the signature of life in the family home.
Writer/director Arnold quite impressed me with Wasp a few years ago and she stayed in my memory thanks partly to her shabby treatment at the Oscars (where, as the winner of her category, she had to receive the award in the aisle and do her speech from there no stage for her), however Fish Tank she stays in my mind on the basis of her film-making ability. Fish Tank is not a perfect film but there is a lot to praise it for. Social-realism is nothing new but Arnold really hits the nail on the head from the start and delivers a simple slice of life that is played in the silences as much as it is in dialogue. There is a downside to this and it is one that most viewers will struggle to ignore the running time. At two hours the film is just about 20 minutes or so longer than it can bear and, in all the silences, there are frequent areas that feel like dips.
This is a minor thing though because the silences depend on the quality of the direction and of the performances both of which are excellent. Arnold's use of the camera is great not only in terms of framing shots but also in terms of movement as this is not a static one shot type of film. The best example of what I mean can be seen in the scene where Mia shows off her dancing for Connor, the camera is close to convey the small room to the audience but it is also delivered with such tension that you can feel what is happening as much as dread it happening. Of course the performances are key in making this type of thing work and everyone is great. In particular Jarvis is brilliantly convincing most people can do the accent and the swagger but she captures the heart of the character, letting the viewer see it even while keeping it below layer after layer of defence mechanism. She is by far the star of the film and she makes it look easy. Wareing, Fassbender and a few others are all good in support but it is always support.
The plot of the film is slight in a way but at the same time with the direction and the performances as good as they are there is always something going on and, as much as I would have liked it a little shorter, I would be at a loss to say what to cut out to make it that way. Fish Tank ends up as a very engaging and gritty drama thanks to Arnold's direction and Jarvis' very strong performance, it mostly avoids cliché and predictable plotting and the cold grey atmosphere of the whole film makes for a distinctive product. A great British film and very well worth seeing how BAFTA managed to miss Arnold and Jarvis this year is a mystery to me.
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