FILMS WORTH WATCHING by Robert Alstead
Fish Tank (out on March 12) is one of those gritty, working class, Brit flicks that makes few concessions to the demands of commercial cinema. Set in the grimy hinterlands of contemporary underclass England, it’s a rite of passage drama about a bored and stroppy teenager, Mia, whose transition into adulthood begins when her mum brings a new man home to their grungy, high-rise flat.
Dialogue is spare, with characters not so much talking as spitting words at each other. There is no soundtrack to speak of, just incidental music. Even the story itself has this minimalist quality to it, with a backdrop of inhospitable, usually decaying urban settings, offset by forays into the nearby countryside, which seem alien in their lushness.
From the start, 15-year-old Mia is ready to break loose. We meet her early on head-butting a classmate. Mia is a bit of a loner, escaping the claustrophobic setting of the housing estate through boozing and listening to hip-hop on her Discman. She’s always fighting with her mouthy, younger sister (non-actor Rebecca Griffiths) and single mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who looks young enough to be her elder sister. When mum brings home smooth talking Irishman Connor (Michael Fassbender of Inglourious Basterds), he starts taking a special interest in Mia, even encouraging her to enter a dance audition. Initially, Connor takes on a father figure role, driving the family to the countryside, lending Mia money, but their relationship becomes loaded with sexual tension.
Fish Tank has much in common with director Andrea Arnold’s debut feature, the assured and memorable Red Road. Both films focus on the inner turmoil of a strong female lead and explore the themes of sexual betrayal and empowerment. Red Road was also set in a working class tower block estate. Both are psychodramas, creating mystery and suspense as we watch the motivations driving the main characters.
Arnold is in her element and draws a strong performance from non-actress Katie Jarvis (discovered while she was arguing with her boyfriend in a railway station), while Fassbender as Connor exudes easy warmth. The film reflects Mia’s desperation and confusion, but without over-delineating the point. Arnold simply sets you down in the thick of things and lets you find your way, with visual metaphors sign-posted along the way. The camera also reflects the feral energy of the young protagonist, who is virtually always on screen. It never seems to stop moving, searching for something.
Somehow, out of the pits of despair, the film manages to come up with something real and hopeful with an ending that is beautifully understated. It’s good to see that at the BAFTAs, Britain’s equivalent to the Oscars, held last month, Fish Tank won Best British Film award (the excellent Moon reviewed in an earlier column won the award for Best Debut).
Oscar-nominated A Prophet (Un prophète), out on March 5, is even more claustrophobic and certainly a more tense rites of passage drama. Malik (brilliant performance by previously unknown Tahar Rahim), an illiterate 19-year-old, is condemned to six years in a prison ruled by Arab and Corsican gangs. Unable to defend himself, the half-Arab kid is commandeered inside by the Corsican gang leader to carry out “missions,” including killing an Arab prisoner, or else be killed himself. As Malik toughens up, he starts playing the various factions inside to his own ends. Director Jacques Audiard’s depiction of prison life is unflinchingly brutal, intense and complex. Although it’s not exactly clear what the meaning is of the more visionary elements of the film, as implied in the title, this goes far beyond the clichés of the hardman, prison drama genre.