Wednesday, October 14, 2009

fish tank, by andrea arnold; review

It's a trite but accurate observation that good art is not just about how it makes you feel while you're experiencing it, but also about how it stays with you. In the spirit of that, I keep returning to Fish Tank, the second film by Andrea Arnold, which I saw a month or so ago, and admiring the depth of its feeling, the power of the central characters' performances, and the striking visuals of the cinematography. This makes me think I should have written about it here earlier – as much as anything so I could compare my thoughts then with my thoughts now, which feel like they have blossomed and deepened, but may merely be overpowering my memory as the details of the film recede. This is definitely a film I'll return to when it comes out on DVD.

I remember the visuals more than anything; the way that Arnold has captured a landscape which, although it's familiar to me from encountering it myself, feels alien and extraordinary in a cinematic context, consisting as it does of a sequence of extraordinary, vivid sunsets over the Essex countryside, intercut with scenes of industrial blight – pylons towering overhead and motorways ploughing through the fields. The film is set on the edge of London and at the start of the Essex countryside, so a strange urban/rural duality is presented. Mia, the central character, a bolshy and bright 15 year old, lives a bleak life in a tower block (although this itself in Arnold's film is refreshingly free of cliché – there are no guns in this movie), and understandably dreams of escape. She is a dancer, although perhaps not one, like Billy Elliot, with a life-changing talent. As the title indicates, Mia is caged, looking for an escape. The fact that she can walk out of the city into the green fields, however, offers no respite until Michael Fassbender arrives in her life. He is Connor, her mother's new boyfriend, and a surrogate father figure.

Mia – played with extraordinary believability by the newcomer Katie Jarvis – is in every frame, prowling through the landscape, her movements repetitive, purposeless and frustrated. Each day she sneaks out, argues with peers, circles the estate, and passes a patch of wasteland where travellers keep a horse tied up. Her movements echo that of a caged animal, listlessly circling, sniffing at the possibility of escape. Her outrage at the horse's imprisonment is palpable – her own yearning for freedom just as obvious.

Her home life is thankless; her young mother is largely unconcerned with the duty of raising her two daughters, and Connor – who displays a sudden, unexpected interest in her life – offers something to which Mia is quite unused; encouragement, positive reinforcement, love. Mia has been excluded from school, and her mother echoes their analysis of her, that she is a nuisance, trouble, out of control. And there is another problem brewing; for all that Connor tries to nurture the girls, it is quickly apparent that Mia's role as troubled daughter is complicated by her emergence as a sexual rival for a mother who, apart from when Fassbander is around, is stuck in the memory of her own teenage years.

Connor is as complex and fascinating a character as the young lead. Notably a bit better educated, a bit more gainfully employed, a bit more comfortable in his own skin than the men Mia's mother normally sees, he nevertheless has his own troubles, and his complex relationship with Mia is just one of them. Their connection is apparent very early on. In one scene, Mia pretends to be asleep so that she can enjoy the feeling of his carrying her back to her room, and in another extraordinary set-piece, Connor takes the family out to the country, where he leads Mia into a fast flowing stream, leans over, and simply lifts a fish smoothly out of the water with his bare hands. It is an incredibly sensual scene, where electricity fizzes silently between the two characters, while Mia's mother and sister look on, oblivious.

Mia can hardly be blamed for her feelings for Connor; living a life so shorn of encouragement and love, she is completely unprepared for her reaction when such things are offered. Connor represents freedom, adulthood, and escape. Her already profound spirit of rebellion is spurred, as is a heart-warming, uncynical appreciation of the more poetic side of life. There are some absolutely thrilling scenes when she dances.

For all that Mia blossoms with Connor's encouragement, he is not the strong, centred man that he appears, and things swiftly get out of hand. Yet Arnold handles the development of the story beautifully, drawing wonderful things out of her young lead, and keeping such a tight hold of the reins that the final third of the film, again shot beautifully on the shores of the Thames Estuary, is completely surprising.

Fish Tank has been the best film I've seen this year, even better than Moon, which I praised very highly on this blog just a month or two ago. It's a magnificent study of youthful disaffection, love and anger, beautifully controlled, shot in bewitching colours. And as I indicated, I've thought about it almost every day since I saw it –so I don't think I could possibly recommend another film so heartily.


Anonymous said...

love this film--x

人妻 said...


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