Monday, January 11, 2010

Andrea Arnold's FISH TANK: British kitchen-sink realism for the new century

If the 2006 film Red Road pretty much put Andrea Arnold (shown below) on the movie-maker map, her new film FISH TANK should keep her there. Re-
lying less on plot, surprise and coinci-
dence than did her earlier endeavor, this one rests mainly on character -- and the very fine new actress, Katie Jarvis (on the poster above and in the second and fourth shots below) who brings it to life.

With this, her first film, Ms Jarvis appears to have a similar ability, as does Samantha Morton, to rivet the viewer and never let go.  (She even bears some resemblance to Ms Morton.)  On-screen for almost the entire film, Jarvis grows more interesting as the movie progresses, handling like a pro even the one major disbelief-suspension scene that the filmmaker throws at us toward the finale.

It has been over half a century since the the British gifted the world with their kitchen sink drama, often featuring an angry young man at the center. Times change (the sinks are more modern), and now the anger is coming off a very young woman (she's but 15), who's got a lot to be mad about: her distant, slatternly mom and bratty little sister, for starters.  Into an already fractured household, mom introduces her latest boyfriend, played by the immensely appealing, versatile and highly sexual actor Michael Fassbender (shown below, from Ozon's Angel and from Eden Lake and the recent Hunger).  The fire starts slowly but sparks do fly.

Arnold is a realist filmmaker: Her ambient sound is filled with distant cursing -- the locations are the projects -- and her visuals are fairly bursting with working-class/on-the-dole life.  (You'll think of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, among others.)  Dance figures into the scenario, as well, and Arnold makes excellent use of it -- from her observations of a schoolgirl group to how dance draws Jarvis & Fassbender together, from the highly sexual-ized "audition" process to a final dance that becomes both telling and moving via its low-key circumstance and the director's smart refusal to push any emotional buttons.

Were Fish Tank not so full of life and spunk, as is its heroine, you might be tempted to call it a character study. You’d be right in that, too. And it’s a very, very good one. The year is young, but I'll be surprised if this film does not end up on numerous "best lists."  The movie, from IFC Films, opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center.

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