Saturday, October 03, 2009

Review - Fish Tank

In the hands of another filmmaker, Fish Tank might have been just another grim British feature about broken lives, broken dreams and social ills. Under the careful direction of Andrea Arnold, however, the film grows into something far more complex and resonant; her vibrant visual sense and ability to coax note-perfect performances from her cast elevating the film beyond its overly familiar setting. One of those actors is a young woman named Katie Jarvis, who has no previous acting experience and was spotted by Arnold arguing with her boyfriend, displaying the kind of fire she knew Fish Tank's central character would possess. Arnold decided to take the gamble, casting this unknown in a demanding role alongside experienced, talented actors, and the gamble has paid extraordinary dividends. Jarvis is a revelation.

She plays Mia, a 15 year-old who lives with her mother (Kierston Wareing) and her mouthy younger sister (the scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths) on a drab East London housing estate. On first glance, Mia looks like a stereotype; abrasive, troublesome, expelled from school and prone to picking fights. But Jarvis shows us other aspects to her character in private moments. When she's alone, Mia loves to dance, practicing her moves in an abandoned flat. To be honest, for all her enthusiasm, she's not particularly good, but she clings to this dream in the hope that it will offer her a future. She is also a character far more vulnerable than her brash demeanour suggests, and she is touchingly ready to drop aggressive front as soon as someone – anyone – offers her with some semblance of kindness or respect.

One person who has such an effect on Mia is Connor (Michael Fassbender), the charming Irishman her mother brings into their home. From the way Connor looks at Mia, and the way he behaves towards her, we instantly begin to suspect some ulterior motives on his part, but Fassbender – giving the latest in a string of outstanding performances – plays the character with skilful ambiguity. Arnold frequently teases our expectations before undermining them in interesting ways. Shooting in a 1.33 aspect ratio, Arnold's work with cinematographer Robbie Ryan is intimate and sensually alive; as in her impressive debut Red Road, she imbues many sequences with an erotic charge, notably when Mia and Connor are in close proximity, and she slows the camera down to let the moment linger.
Fish Tank is a more rounded and accomplished film than Red Road, which eventually buckled under the weight of its plot contrivances, and it's definitely a step forward for Arnold, but I still have some slight reservations about her work. Her filmmaking style throws up as many longueurs as it does memorable moments, and Fish Tank is a film that would have benefitted from some more disciplined editing. The director also has a weakness for clumsy symbolism (a chained white horse, for example), and she is prone to making some baffling decisions, such as a bizarre dog reaction shot that undermines one of the film's most poignant sequences. More often, however, Fish Tank is a striking, honest and gripping film, never more so than in the climactic half-hour, when Arnold stages a terrifically tense sequence that reminded me of the Dardenne brothers' best work. It is during this sequence, as we watch we breathless anticipation, that we realise just how much we have come to care about the character Jarvis and director have so vividly created, and the film's touching, open-ended climax, leaves us wondering what life has in store for her next.