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EIFF 2009 - Fish Tank

Life through a lens

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Fish Tank

Red Road director Andrea Arnold might not be steeped in cinematic history but, says Allan Hunter, her new film Fish Tank is a work of timeless beauty. It opens our 2009 Edinburgh International Film Festival coverage in style

Andrea Arnold is a director who likes to work on instinct. She makes films that are defined by their acute observation of real lives rather than informed by a movie buff’s love affair with cinema. The point is underlined at the Cannes launch of her new film Fish Tank, a portrait of a lonely, troubled teenager stunningly played by non-professional newcomer Katie Jarvis. An earnest European journalist enquired if Arnold might have taken some of her inspiration from the Francois Truffaut classic The 400 Blows. She quickly replied: ‘Don’t know the film, sorry. Perhaps I should go to my local video store and get it out.’

At 48, actor-turned-filmmaker Arnold is considered one of the British screen industry’s late bloomers. She is clearly intent on making up for lost time, winning an Oscar for her powerful short Wasp (2003) and securing the Cannes Jury Prize for her debut feature Red Road (2006), a feat she has just repeated with Fish Tank. Critical acclaim for the film has confirmed her as the new standard bearer for a strain of dynamic social realist drama best personified by Ken Loach, the Dardenne brothers and Mike Leigh. She has an ability to discern the extraordinary drama in ordinary lives. Her working style also has echoes of Loach and Leigh as she prefers to let a script develop organically as she works with the actors. This leaves Arnold open to the element of discovery as the script is shot in sequence, trying to echo the uncertainty that is part of everyday life. Fish Tank has its roots in a single image.

‘I won’t tell anybody what it is, because I feel like it gives the film away,’ she says. ‘I had an image of Katie doing something, and I wondered: what was she doing, why was she doing it, and I start writing outwards from that image. It’s one of the strongest images in the film and that’s how I’ve always written.’

Newcomer Katie Jarvis stars as Mia, a sullen, stroppy 15-year-old who lives with her mother and younger sister. She appears to be at war with the world, lashing out at all comers with verbal and physical abuse. We see a very different Mia when she meets her mother’s sexy new boyfriend Connor, a security guard played by Michael Fassbender. Fish Tank may seem to tell an age-old story of fatal attraction and blighted lives but Arnold constantly catches the viewer off balance as events start to assume the air of Greek tragedy. Her skill is finding the flaws and vulnerability in even the most unapproachable character, which was part of the attraction for Fassbender, a rising star after his performance in Hunger.

‘What’s always interesting with Andrea’s work is you have these characters that do questionable things, and it doesn’t make them essentially “evil” – words like that are sort of black and white – but there’s a lot of shading in there,’ says Fassbender. ‘The audience leaves the cinema questioning what they just saw, and questioning the morality of the actions of these characters. Essentially, I never wanted to judge the character or his actions. I just wanted to play it moment by moment and let the story take care of itself, in Andrea’s hands.’

Arnold always brings out the best in her actors and has an eye for spotting raw potential. Kate Dickie was unforgettable as the vulnerable CCTV operator in Red Road. Seventeen year-old Katie Jarvis was a complete novice before being cast as Mia in Fish Tank. A scout spotted her yelling at her boyfriend on a train station platform and thought she might have the spirit to play Mia.

‘It was an interesting experience; she’d not long been out of school and hadn’t done any work yet, and then she was doing something that required her to be up at five every morning,’ says Arnold. ‘She worked incredibly hard and was in nearly every scene. And she got quite tired. When you’ve done film before, you know how to pace yourself at the weekend. But Katie’d go out and party or buy loads of shoes with the money she suddenly had.’

One of Mia’s great passions in the film is her dancing. When she practises her moves in a deserted flat and dares to enter an audition tape for a local talent search we begin to view her as a human being with aspirations towards a better life. Arnold’s original instinct was to search for a girl who could dance and hope that the acting came naturally. In the end, she settled for the exact opposite and made it work for the film.

‘We couldn’t find any girls who were right,’ Arnold admits. ‘When I met Katie she wouldn’t actually dance … we had to leave her with the camera so she could dance on her own. When she did her dancing it was absolutely about herself; it wasn’t a show.’

Jarvis was unable to attend Fish Tank’s Cannes premiere as she has just given birth to her first child. Arnold is not even sure that Jarvis will want to make acting a career, although after becoming one of the discoveries of Cannes 2009 she has recently signed up with an agent. The lack of expectations surrounding any newcomer is what makes Jarvis’s portrayal of Mia all the more arresting and is in keeping with Arnold’s style of making films that feel as true to reality as possible. Arnold is not someone who explains a film away. Instead, she invites the audience to supply their own feelings and interpretations. She even seems reluctant to explain the film’s title, merely observing: ‘It just felt absolutely right. People always want to put something on the documents for the film early on. Before you’ve even made the film, they want to know what the title is. I always feel I need to feel the film first, and see what it’s going to be before I think of the title. So I kind of resist the title thing until I absolutely have to. I’m not sure, but – Fish Tank – there’s a lot of life in a fish tank: it’s a small space. I felt that was a good metaphor for the film.’

Fish Tank, Cameo, Sun 21, 8.15pm; Wed 24 Jun, 3pm, £8.50 (£7.50).

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Fish Tank

  • 5 stars
  • 2009
  • UK
  • 122 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Andrea Arnold
  • Written by: Andrea Arnold
  • Cast: Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender

Living in a small flat on a sprawling Essex council estate with her single mum (Wareing) and younger sister, angry and aggressive 15-year-old Mia (Jarvis) finds herself inexplicably drawn, with disastrous results, to her mother's new boyfriend, the confident and seemingly kind Connor (Fassbender). A brilliantly displaced…

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