21 October 2010

FISH TANK (Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2009, UK) - Broken Britain

Newcomer Katie Jarvis as 15 year old Mia - a symbol of social exclusion.

On the strength of just two feature films and a handful of notable shorts, British director Andrea Arnold has emerged as an exemplary propagator of the social realist aesthetic that continues to be a marker of quality British cinema as defined by the work of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Shane Meadow. Whilst it would be easy to trace the realist approach to film making back to the Italian neo realist cinema of the post war era, Andrea Arnold's latest film Fish Tank repeats an ideological agenda from her fierce debut red road that situates working class women at the centre of the narrative. Simultaneously, Arnold's unfiltered and elliptical style shares more common ground with the work of The Dardennes than her British contemporaries. In many ways, Mia's erratic and unpredictable nature which of course has largely been shaped by the impoverished environment parallels the misguided and plainly desperate path chosen by Bruno in The Dardennes masterful L'Enfant (The Child, 2005). I guess what I am leading to is the legacy of Robert Bresson who left a deep impression on European art cinema and both Red Road and Fish Tank seem to take their lead from a minimalist style that is reflected in Arnold's emphasis on micro details. In truth, Arnold merges the traditions of social realism with that of transcendental cinema to create an urban story that smacks of an immediacy in which the over used political rhetoric of broken Britain is undeniably current.

However, Arnold's images of absent fathers, feral youth and class exploitation are familiar enough in their painful evocation. It is a reality constructed and manipulated by men like Connor (Michael Fassbender) who use class disparity as a means of patriarchal control. I guess power relations are fundamentally at the heart social realist cinema and of course such an argument is repudiated in the age old class conflict of Ken Loach. Interestingly, Ken Loach is back on the news agenda since he recently criticised television producers for filling schedules with a glut of reality shows - funnily enough Arnold seems to share such a view as she repeatedly juxtaposes family life to the escapist diversions of reality shows which hover in the background as a symbol of political and social inertia. Another detail is the use of a horse which we first see chained up and which Mia attempts but fails to free. It is a simple metaphor rendered with such poetic imagination that the death of the horse at the end becomes an extension for the loss of innocence and also more importantly that becoming trapped in the case of Mia will inevitably lead to a perpetual state of despair.

This is a brave film in every sense and like The Dardennes, Arnold seems to share an equal interest in natural lighting, non professional actors, location shooting and an observational style that continue earnestly to dictate a contemporary and brutally honest neo realist agenda. Not an inkling of pretension exists, transforming Fish Tank into a truthful treatise on family life, youth and escape. On a final note, I didn't want to end without referencing the influence of Alan Clarke on director Andrea Arnold - in many ways the social exclusion experienced by skinhead Trevor (Made in Britain) in Thatcher's Britain finds telling parallels in Mia who too has been excluded from education. However, the explicit politicising of Clarke's cinema yet again illustrates how detached Arnold may actually be from the social realist style commonly invoked when discussing her work. Nevertheless, the one common value that unifies all of the directors I have mentioned is their humanism and it such an outlook that makes Fish Tank such a prescient and emotive work.


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