March 2010

Arts & Letters

Through a glass brightly

By Luke Davies

Andrea Arnold’s ‘Fish Tank’ and Tom Ford’s ‘A Single Man’

“Life’s a bitch and then you die,” sings the rapper AZ on the soundtrack of Fish Tank (released nationally on 11 March), Andrea Arnold’s gritty and engaging British drama about a young girl growing up without anchor or compass on a drab Essex council estate. “That’s why we get high,” the song continues, “’cos you never know / when you’re gonna go.” As if to illuminate a certain MTV-driven cultural imperialism, the soundscape of Fish Tank is littered with rap, hip-hop and that ubiquitous Beyoncé-style R & B, not only as part of the soundtrack itself, but also in dance auditions, on televisions in run-down council flats, and on teenage girls’ boom-boxes.

That’s not to say the focus of the film is music or dance; it’s very far from that. Newcomer Katie Jarvis plays 15-year-old Mia, a ball of disgruntled, adolescent anger and angst in conflict with the entire world. She lives with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and little sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Wareing plays Joanne with a compelling combination of fading beauty and feisty youthfulness, a feistiness her daughters have clearly inherited. She’s a terrible mother; she drinks too much and has largely given up on controlling the girls. Indeed, Mia is set to go to a ‘special’ school called the Pupil Referral Unit, which is “full of spastics and idiots”, according to Tyler.

There’s an odd, distant echo here with Tim Hunter’s River’s Edge (1986), in which a pair of teenagers (Crispin Glover and Keanu Reeves) are fundamentally lost and numb, even astonishing the corrupt, cynical drug-dealer (Dennis Hopper) with their lack of empathy about a classmate’s murder. In Fish Tank, Tyler, who is about five years of damage away from catching up with Mia’s current state, seems more of a loose cannon even than Mia. In both films, each succeeding younger age-bracket gets scarier, more dissociated; in River’s Edge, Reeves’ morally vacant little brother shows the older boys in the best possible light by virtue of comparison. In Fish Tank, Griffiths’ role as Tyler is not huge, but she steals the show on a number of occasions. She wears inappropriate make-up and swears like a trooper – “Mind your own, fuckface,” says Mia; “If I’m a fuckface, you’re a cuntface,” Tyler shoots back – but towards the end of the film she also manages to display a deep, desperate sadness, and seems, quite purely, like the lost ten-year-old she really is.

Katie Jarvis, a non-professional actor who was discovered by an alert casting director while she was having a fight with her boyfriend on a train station, is tremendous in the role of Mia; she ultimately owns the film. She may not have highly polished acting skills, but her raw talent holds our interest. The teenage delinquent Vicky Pollard, from the Little Britain TV comedy series, is the comical version of this kind of estate girl, but Jarvis’ Mia is more real, and through all the relentless aggression she delivers her pathos with a punch. Going to confront her recently ex-best friend, Mia finds her choreographing a slutty, but oddly lacklustre, dance routine with a group of sheepish girls. “What the fuck’s your problem?” says one of them, unnerved by Mia’s staring. “Your terrible dancing’s my problem,” Mia responds, before headbutting the girl and breaking her nose.

Into Mia’s life comes the likeable, if feckless, Irishman Connor (Michael Fassbender), who works in security at a local hardware chain. Connor has been sleeping with Mia’s mother and all but moves in. Joanne thinks he’s the best thing since sliced bread, and little Tyler loves him too. For Mia it’s more complicated; Connor is yet another intruder, someone recklessly using her already damaged mum. And yet he’s kind to Mia. He listens and pays attention. He’s good-looking, too. When he lends her his Handycam so that she can shoot a dance audition-tape of herself, she practises her filming skills on him; he happens to be getting changed. Later, in bed, she rewinds the footage on the tiny screen. Another day, when the four take a trip to the river, Connor piggybacks her to the car. As Mia leans in close, we see that she’s breathing him in, deeply, her face nestled in the crook of his neck.

The film barely falters, and never takes sides, as it explores the possibility that Connor is grooming her. It’s an outstanding role for Fassbender, who gave a striking performance as the IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands in the English director Steve McQueen’s gruelling, difficult Hunger (2008), and who is suddenly popping up in films everywhere. He’s a sharp and cerebral actor, but he has an intense physicality, too, and Arnold succeeds in capturing Mia’s confusion as she is secretly drawn to him.

The film comes out of a long tradition of realism in English cinema. One thinks of Ken Loach – of Sweet Sixteen (2002) and, in particular, of the sublime Kes (1970), with which Fish Tank shares some lovely structural and tonal similarities. In Kes, young Billy (David Bradley) is panicked and bewildered by the hardscrabble brutality of life, and Kes, his foundling kestrel falcon, is his escape and passion. Dancing is Mia’s Kes. These outsiders – two beautiful fictional creations 40 years apart – are both bundles of unstoppable energy, even if Billy is defined by his timidity, and Mia by her anger. There’s even an odd physical similarity between the two: the wary eyes, thin lips, crooked teeth and smile.

Meanwhile, Arnold has an eye for a positively Ballardian England, a decaying dystopia of weedy lots near freeway overpasses and charmless, imposing tower blocks. But – and here she differs from the likes of Loach – there’s a very stylised undercurrent flowing beneath Fish Tank’s realist surface. There are two distinct camera styles: standard tripods-and- reverse for basic kitchen-sink expository, and dynamic hand-held, which takes us deep into Mia’s emotional reality. Mia is in perpetual motion and the hand-held follows right behind her, the rest of the world slightly out of focus; this infuses the film with some of its edgy urgency. Arnold (with cinematographer Robbie Ryan) also loves colour, and finds it in the oddest places, so that, dystopia aside, her England is at times trippy, dreamy and sun drenched.

Fashion designer Tom Ford also loves colour, even if it’s art-designed to within an inch of its life. For his first feature he has very carefully made a visually flawless film. This does not make it a great film, or even always good. But it is certainly beautiful to look at. Based on a Christopher Isherwood novel, A Single Man (in national release) follows a day in the life of fifty-something English professor George (Colin Firth) as he methodically puts his affairs in order in preparation for his suicide. His lover, Jim (Matthew Goode, woven into the film through flashbacks), has recently died in a car accident; George, who one gathers was never the most animated man, is frozen with grief. Ever the polite Englishman, he takes his classes, converses sociably enough with those whose paths cross his, and moves through the world with a tentative, impeccable grace. “By the time I’m dressed and put the final whiff of polish on the now slightly stiff George,” he tells us in voice-over as he begins his day, “I know what part I am to play.” This is offset by the darker wish: “Let’s just get through the goddamned day.”

Firth’s performance is beautifully modulated from start to finish. Informed of Jim’s death by a phone call from one of Jim’s relatives, George has to stifle any emotional response. It’s the early ’60s; men don’t cry, and there are no gays. News of the Cuban missile crisis plays constantly on radio and TV in the background. George’s best friend is Charley (Julianne Moore), a going-to-seed alcoholic with whom, in his distant past, George had a brief sexual relationship. For Jim, as we see in flashback, this was a problematic fact. “If you sleep with women, then why are you with me?” Jim asks. “Because I fall in love with men,” says George. “Because I fell in love with you.” For Charley, in the here and now, the problem is quite the opposite. “If you weren’t such a goddamned poof,” she says, “we could all have been happy.”

Locked in his narrow trajectory towards ending it all, George unfurls these memories from his past, while meticulously planning every step of his rapidly diminishing present. His insurance policies are all laid out, as is the suit he wishes to be buried in. His last letters are ready to be opened. “Tie in a Windsor” he writes on a note for the mortician. However, his best-laid plans for this day will be affected by three encounters with one of his students, Kenny (Nicholas Hoult). “I can’t wait for the present to be over,” says Kenny; they share at least that common ground.

The whole film has the look of a fashion shoot, or possibly of a sophisticated television commercial by Don Draper of Mad Men. After the film’s Toronto Film Festival screening, a blogger said that A Single Man had been shot entirely in “gay-O-vision”. When everything looks like Wallpaper* magazine, fashion fetishism can easily become fashion fascism; at the very least, it can stultify. Ford only has one taste, one speed. This can be both a strength and a weakness: it’s more of a weakness in this film, though there is a fluidity that borders, at times, on the hypnotic. You can certainly say that A Single Man is a good first film, while at the same time wishing for a touch less austerity. (The dance scene between George and Charley, which deserves its place in that little subcosmos of cool dance scenes in film – Pulp Fiction (1994), Jesus’ Son (1999), Boy A (2007), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – is a welcome relief in this sense.) Dramatically, the film’s greatest problem may be that, as well as being all but frozen over himself, George also ignores other people’s feelings. This is a little lose–lose in terms of emotional narrative: the risk is we get shut out from everything but the film’s surface.

A Spanish street hustler, a James Dean look-alike who tries to pick up George, says, “Sometimes awful things have their own kind of beauty.” This, I suppose, is Ford’s driving aesthetic. It is similar to Andrea Arnold’s, but their methodologies are poles apart. Her capturing of beauty in Fish Tank is more raw, urgent and plaintive; her film, as a result, is by far the more interesting one.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

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