Edinburgh Film Festival 2009: Andrea Arnold and Fish Tank

Andrea Arnold (and interviewer) during the 'post-match' interview

Andrea Arnold (and interviewer) during the ‘post-match’ interview

Andrea Arnold’s second feature has blazed the trail in a similar way to her first, this one winning the Jury Prize (shared with Park Chan-Wook’s Thirst) at the Cannes Film Festival. It made its second public appearance at the Edinburgh Film Festival this weekend to an enthusiastic reception for the director and her actors who were there for the Q & A after the screening.

It’s familiar territory to the astonishing Red Road – high rise flats and desperate existences of the people within them and has the same poetic take on the social realist genre. However, before I lazily lock down an Arnold auteur style, this is a very different kind of film. And the problem with this blog entry is that I really don’t want to give anything away – and to say that I am really glad that I hadn’t read anything about the film before I saw it. This meant that the terrible and effective tension that built through the film, based on not knowing where the different elements of the story might lead, worked a treat to wrack your nerves. However, this was only because the performances from this tightly woven ensemble cast were completely convincing, even when the character themselves might have easily veered into a social realist stereotype. As someone astutely commented during the post-film Q&A session, Michael Fassbender doesn’t stand out despite his intense and charismatic performance and this said everything about the strength of the combined playing between all the actors.

Central to all of this – and destined to be singled out for praise – is the breakout performance by Katie Jarvis, as the gobby, aggressive fifteen year old daughter of a single mum. She’s everything of the frustrated, angry teenager who should/might repel but who entirely has you on her side, quickly, without having done anything that traditionally should gain your sympathy. Everything is conveyed through her body language and her dialogue without the need for clunky back story or exchanges between characters. It’s a brilliant performance.  But so is the playing from the subsidiary characters (such as Kierston Wareing as mum or Harry Treadaway as Kyle) which do not see their limited screen time as needing them to over-emphasise their roles. Less is definitely more in this claustrophobic, unravelling piece.

Arnold discussed the great luxury she had of filming in narrative order for this film and said that, for the first time, she worked by giving the script piecemeal to the characters (both techniques that Ken Loach has used to create authenticity of performances). Jarvis was cast having been observed having a row with her boyfriend on a train platform, but she isn’t just being herself.  She does give a real full-on performance of incredible nuance and sensitivity and she matches Fassbender’s quality in several key scenes, making them unbearably involving.

Arnold says (of awards pressure) that she concentrates on writing things that are personal to her – not in an autobiographical sense, but things that she feels strongly about, stories she wants to tell. That kind of authenticity really is a hallmark, the emotions radiate through the characters as they do so powerfully in Red Road and so that as in real-life experience)  you know them, but don’t know what they might do. Honestly, go without reading anything.

The production team is worth examining – producers with eclectic and interesting backgrounds working with Peter Greenaway, Michael Winterbottom.  There is Christine Langan –  for her background, see http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2006/05_may/10/langan.shtml, another constant reminder of British television’s vital influence on the film industry. And also the UK Film Council. All these a reminder of the hand to mouth just-about sustainability of the British film industry.


    • venicelion

      The UK is now officially a country made up of the ‘Home Nations’. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have ‘devolved powers’ (to a different degree in each case) which enable them to control many aspects of domestic government. The question then arises about possible ‘devolution’ for England and its regions (some of which are bigger than any of the other Home Nations). In practice, the UK Film Council is a ‘UK-wide’ body which works through separate Screen Commissions in each Home Nation and each English region.

      Each of the nations and regions has filmmaking capacity and a distinctive culture. Public funding is designed to promote both local film production and local film culture (including films made in Welsh and Gaelic). It’s a longstanding debate, but whereas some filmmakers would see themselves as, for example, Scottish first and British second, few would think of themselves as ‘English’ first – which can be taken either as a rejection of nationalism or as an assumption of English superiority depending on point of view. In direct answer to your question, I’d say that film in the UK is ‘largely London-based’ rather than England-based. Filmmakers from Glasgow or Manchester might be forced to go to London to get production funding. Some will become part of the ‘international film industry’ but others will preserve their own national/regional identity.

      In all of this, Ken Loach is, as usual, an interesting case of someone who for several years moved to Scotland to make films but otherwise has maintained strong European connections. All of these UK issues are mirrored in different ways in France, Germany and Spain.


  1. keith1942

    A word of warning. Fish Tank appears to be screening in different aspect ratios. Sight & Sound lists it as 2.35:1. Another source [usually reliable] lists it as 1.85:1. However a digital print was screening in 1.37:1, and I check a multiplex, where, what looked like a 35mm print was also in 1.37:1.
    Artificial Eye commented, “The film is 1.33:1 within a 1.85:1 frame. This is true of both the 35mm and digital.”
    This seems to be the same as the technique used for film trailers in different aspect ratios from the feature. However, this is the first time I have come across it for a feature itself.
    Artificial Eye did not explain why, but I assume it is because they think some cinemas do not have the plates for a 1.37 ratio.
    I rather think this is not a good development


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