Fish Tank (Arnold, 2009)

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Anyone familiar with Andrea Arnold’s first-rate feature debut Red Road (2006) will be well aware of her ability to generate compelling drama from a seemingly modest scenario. Interweaving a spell of ghosts from the past with a gripping voyeuristic compulsion, Red Road turned the dank back streets of Glasgow into something sinister and perverse. In her follow-up, Fish Tank (2009), the late-blooming Arnold returned to England armed with an insightful, uncompromising original screenplay of her own.

Set in the heart of a low-income neighbourhood of Essex housing estates, Fish Tank filters life through the eyes of sullen, moody 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her indifferent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and a smart-ass young sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who she’s constantly feuding with.

Mia is like a boxer awaiting her turn in the ring: full of pent-up aggression, being slowly suffocated by the stagnation and poverty of her joyless life. Her only avenue of expression comes through the slowly evolving hip-hop dance routines she works on in the seclusion of an abandoned flat.

When her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), enters the frame, the household’s dynamic subtly shifts. Though she often displays over-compensatory aggression towards Connor, Mia finds herself intrigued by this overtly masculine figure, the kind of mature-bodied male she’s been oblivious to until now. A vaguely sexual yearning gradually comes to a head and with it the potential for dangerous consequences.

Arnold’s film is an expressive, powerful example of the British social realism most commonly associated with the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Fish Tank is deliberately toned down in visual terms, though as became evident in Red Road, Arnold has an uncanny knack for eyeing concise, hushed moments that reflect an evocative sensation of poetry in slow motion.

Here, Fassbender was already exhibiting the indefinable qualities that would fast-track him towards the allure of even meatier roles though at the cost, naturally, of integration into projects engineered more for the masses than the art house. His immersive, jaw-dropping portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) may still be regarded as a career highpoint years from now, but he has always provided a magnetic impression when on screen and Fish Tank was but another indicator of his gifts.

The rawness of non-actor Jarvis – plucked from real life by Arnold – makes for an interesting contrast. This is an accomplished, uninhibited debut performance by her, though she’s been gifted with a role in which she’s given plenty of room to manoeuvre by Arnold’s incisive, unsentimental screenplay.

Ultimately the film is more than a glimpse inside the fish bowl that holds the youth of a British underclass at arm’s length with little chance of escape. Forms of betrayal are experienced at every turn: in the apathy of a mother who is blithely neglectful of her maternal duties; in the moral betrayal of a man who exploits Mia’s underdeveloped sexual potential, pricking her into action in a way that places the safety of innocents in jeopardy. Even the dance audition she earns is merely a euphemism for further exploitation, choking off an additional avenue of escape.

Considering the grim circumstances and relentless grip of this decaying urban dwelling, how does Arnold achieve some kind of catharsis for Mia? Though there are times when Mia rubs us the wrong way, it’s hard to not be moved by the painful choices she’s ultimately forced to make. None of this is easy to watch but Fish Tank is grippingly alive with people, emotions and consequences that are all, too often, devastatingly real.

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You, the Living (Andersson, 2007)

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This astonishing 2007 Swedish film, presented as a series of serio-comic vignettes, is the work of writer-director Roy Andersson. It’s no easy task attempting to categorise You, the Living; simply put it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen. Each scene is short and sharp and virtually every set-up is a static one, but filled with fascinating, tiny details that speak of a meticulous attention to detail. It allows a painterly, dreamlike through-line to develop, like watching abstract works of art slowly come to life. Only twice in the entire film does the camera move.

The colours are muted and drab in this sunless world of mostly nameless, pasty-faced protagonists whose lives are played out in mournful, incremental advances. Andersson’s deadpan humour provides memorable surreal moments of suffering and joy, the avenging, repeating lines of these hapless, downtrodden souls insisting that “tomorrow is another day” regardless of their proximity to despair.

There’s a randomness of observation that borders on genius, and yet there are moments of perfect clarity too. Though a large ensemble of characters’ lives overlap without rhyme or reason, there is also the irreparable damage caused by acute isolation, more than one person bemoaning the fact that “nobody understands me!”

There are moments of poignant contemplation; in others, characters speak directly to the camera, whilst some seem to be speaking to a person who isn’t there. There’s a lovesick girl who pines for the lead singer of a rock group; an old doctor who’s fed up with unhappy patients he regards as beyond his help; a hilarious sex scene where a wife’s sporadic, ecstatic groans are drowned out by her husband’s continual dispassionate descriptions of the intricacies of his retirement funds.

There are dozens of others too, perhaps a few don’t come off, but nearly every one is a gem in its own way – and ripe for rediscovery in a film that demands multiple viewings to re-assess its subtleties and vagaries.

You, the Living is unique and unconventional, pulled off with such startling precision that I’m tempted to label it a masterpiece, and yet one simmering with barely tangible notions; a film so rich with minute, eccentric detail that it threatens to redefine the very nature of cinematic storytelling. Watch it and, like me, you’ll crave to see it again and again.

Michael Clayton (Gilroy, 2007)

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Tony Gilroy’s 2007 debut behind the camera is brimming with smart, slick dialogue; some of it may come off as stagy, but by the time the noose of tension is being tightly drawn, I didn’t really care, hooked by the weight of its juicy cover-up and justifications for murder. George Clooney is the film’s heart and soul, and luckily he’s able to project the kind of introspective intensity required to ensure Michael Clayton is a believable, even if not entirely empathetic, character; his motivations seem dubious in the establishing scenes, though his clinical command of a situation is counterbalanced by his own weakness for a deck of cards.

Clayton is a jaded but highly proficient “fix-it” man for his law firm, a term replete with malleable qualifiers. He cleans up the mess of others, mockingly referred to by friend and co-worker Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) as “a janitor” – the connotations of which seem a little dismissive of his true importance – an integral component, plugging holes with occasional recognition but with neither fanfare or, to his chagrin, a shot at a partnership.

Gilroy begins the film with a 15 minute flash forward, though ending this first act with an explosion, which seen for the first time without any context to rationalise it, deprives it of real impact. But quickly the ship is righted as Gilroy sets about unravelling the sly backstory, commenced four days prior with Arthur’s very public, semi-naked descent into a medication-deprived relapse; a manic-depressive episode which seems to stir his troubled conscience, illuminating his overworked mind with clarifications that must seem like divine messages from on high.

Suddenly, a case in which Arthur’s been swimming with the tide, takes on the proportions of something else: connivingly engineered, amoral culpability; swiftly, the ruthless uNorth, a profiteering chemical company and makers of a weed killer that has seemingly claimed hundreds of human victims, begin their defensive strategizing in order to minimize backlash or harm to their reputation.

The clarity of a re-awakened conscience has dangerous potential and uNorth’s reflexive measures, initiated by its edgy, bundle-of-nerves attorney, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), become a relentless pursuit of concealing injustice for the sake of their own hides; Arthur becomes a liability, an internally diagnosed “cancer” whose silent removal would benefit both parties.

Slowly the pieces of the puzzle come into sharper focus for Clayton who only vaguely senses the conspiracy afoot at first, but has the added insight of his long friendship with Arthur to clear away any marginal doubts of their obstructive presence. Here, Gilroy’s steady writing builds a subtle, but compelling momentum as a race to find, and gently inform authorities, of the truth becomes paramount. This is a somber drama with the added dimensions of a thriller, and although reaching a neat, predictable conclusion, it does provide satisfaction – meeting that comforting sense of ‘vengeance is sweetest when served by the just and righteous’.

Clooney wears his steely-eyed compunction like a mask and with murky grey lines of fallibility – an ostracised brother, a dud investment and up to his armpits in gambling debts – soaking him in dour duty, he follows the one clearly detectable straight line to its unequivocal conclusion, subverting the intentions of his keepers, the men assuming he’ll stay blind to the truth and follow their orders. Swinton, as the jumpy, reluctant negotiator with shady, dark denizens of the night, and Wilkinson as the impassioned but deeply troubled Arthur, give excellent support, whilst the late Sydney Pollack adds a measure of real gravitas to the role of Clayton’s superior.

A writer with a sizable body of work already behind him (The Bourne trilogy, Proof of Life), Gilroy thrives in his first shot at the director’s chair; Michael Clayton is a fine drama and a highly entertaining one, with a compelling, watertight screenplay and tidy, unobtrusive direction. It’s dense with detail yet never strays into impenetrability, with just enough flesh on its bones to make us care for Clayton’s quest and Arthur’s sad plight. Similarly effective, James Newton Howard’s ominous, simmering electronic score creates tension of its own, whilst Robert Elswitt’s wintry, reduced palette fits the tone of the film like a glove.

The Great Gatsby (Luhrmann, 2013)

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As subtlety, nuance and ambiguity are battered aside by excess in the initial half hour, you wonder if Baz Luhrmann’s take on The Great Gatsby (2013) can ever recover. Thankfully, to a large extent it does, the skeletal framework of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s still left standing after the multi-faceted cinematic assault of the director and his legion of artistic accessorisers. For devotees of the novel, however, the saddest aspect of this overblown production will be how the margins are filled out with amorphous, far less complicated shapes poking through the evaporative mist of classic storytelling misdirection.

Luhrmann’s ploy to reconstruct a classic is an elaborate one, ornate, expensively staged – and almost swallowed up by the impression of heightened artificiality it takes pains to exaggerate. In the opening stretch, the effect is of recreating a famous work of art as a cartoon cell. Still, on a fundamental level only the glimmer of a great tale is required when it’s the ghost of Fitzgerald who is doing the telling.

Leonardo DiCaprio brings genuine presence and star power to his portrayal of Gatsby, even if the depth of his pining for an irretrievable perfection is flattened out into too generically palatable doses. The hollowness at the core of a life spent lavishly entertaining for pitifully little reward hits home, his yearning for true love Daisy cancelled out by an American Dream going horribly sour. Carey Mulligan is a passable Daisy, stripped of interesting layers, whilst Tobey Maguire is a feeble, slightly bland Nick Carraway, his voiceover narration unavoidably tainted by the actor’s less than steely presence.

Once it finally settles into the narrative, relegating the glitz and glamour to the backdrop, The Great Gatsby works closer to being a more entertaining, even legitimate piece of cinema, though distinctly of a piece with its director’s uneven past work. Simplified and commercialised, certainly, but it becomes a reasonably compelling reflection of its source material even if only a small proportion of what constitute Fitzgerald’s timeless themes can be glimpsed between the lines.

 

Bright Star (Campion, 2009)

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Atoning for a past of artful but turgid films choking on their own bloated sense of importance, director Jane Campion delivered her finest work to date with Bright Star (2009). This intense, impassioned study of the unconsummated, ill-fated love affair of John Keats and Fanny Brawne, works its magic like an ode to the art of poetry and our own love of the English language. Working from only sketchy biographical details, including many of Keats’ letters to Fanny, Campion convincingly transports us back to early 19th century England.

Keats (Ben Whishaw) is an impoverished poet whose publication has yet to translate into financial prosperity. Daily he engages in writing sessions with best friend and fellow poet Charles Brown (Paul Schneider), but a neighbour, the inquisitive Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) soon has him interested in something other than literary pursuits. As a young man mired in poverty, however, he has to fight an instinct within begging him to stay away from Fanny, for his inability to provide for any woman is like a constant lance in his side.

As a kind of love triangle, interesting dynamics emerge from Campion’s gloriously literate screenplay, incorporating a liberal smattering of Keats’ poetry. The gently derisive jabs at Fanny from Brown may be construed as playful, but behind them is real venom. From one angle it may seem that he’s only being protective of Keats and the integrity of the creative process, for it’s a privilege to share ideas with a young man he regards as a gift to the artform. But slowly emerging are deeper feelings that are equally responsible for his barely-veiled petulance as Fanny’s presence begins to inspire a more noticeable and undesirable effect on Keats and his frame of mind.

It’s the underlying complexities of these relationships that enhance the film’s painstakingly-crafted aesthetic beauty and some of its subtle recurrent themes: of creation unhindered by love and its diverse definitions; of a finite existence embraced for the preciousness of every moment.

Despite the exceptional work of Whishaw, so horribly miscast in Perfume (2006), and Cornish who convey a realistic chemical reaction, it’s Schneider who steals the show with an electric performance as the caustic, discontented Brown. Unapologetically condescending, he seems constantly wired, his impregnation of a naïve housemaid coming across as sadly misdirected, a kind of sordid compensation for what he really desires.

Campion has always displayed an innate musical sense at least, her past collaborations producing exceptional work from Wojciech Kilar (1996’s Portrait of a Lady) and Michael Nyman (1993’s The Piano). Her choice of composer here was newcomer Mark Bradshaw whose sparingly used music is saved for maximum impact in perhaps six or seven scenes. It works brilliantly in every one and leaves you wanting more.

I’ve struggled to love this director’s past work, especially the provocative, sleazy In the Cut (2003) and the abomination that is Holy Smoke (1999) – despite, it must be said, an incredibly brave Kate Winslet performance. But her latest film is a real tonic, providing unexpected redemption and wiping away the stain of those past ‘misdemeanors’. Bold, romantic, and genuinely moving as it counts down to its inevitable conclusion, Bright Star glitters with every potent word, every helpless silent gesture, to create something of intoxicating beauty.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (Ramsey, 2011)

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From its chillingly abstract opening half hour to its more mundane dissection of an unnatural, antagonistic mother and child relationship, Lynne Ramsey’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) retains a power to disturb in the way it neatly interweaves the evolvement of evil against the backdrop of normality it seeks to poison.

The film opens elliptically like the placement of puzzle pieces – from different strands of time – artfully arranged into a mosaic of raw emotional extremes. Though jumbled, overlapping and chaotic, a series of disturbing impressions emerge. From the haunted, detached stares of Eva (Tilda Swinton) we see a woman and mother grasping for sanity amid turmoil that is portentously hinted at but never fully disclosed. The most distressing revelations are reserved for the final segment of the film when the psychological war between Eva and her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) culminates with a truly noxious and personal statement from the boy to his mother.

Though I’m not a fan of her earlier work (in fact, 2002’s Morvern Callar is a film I hated with a passion), I wholeheartedly acknowledge that Ramsay’s direction here is stunning. Idiosyncratic and impressionistic, her approach often bears a strong whiff of Nicolas Roeg about it. The way she manipulates time, colour, and perception is masterful in the way of Don’t Look Now (1973) for example, providing a structural narrative power that only refracted cognitive stirrings as subjective as these can provide.

As ever the incomparable Swinton’s stark, non-classical looks provide the basis for a flawless, relentlessly magnified portrayal of deep-rooted emotional truth. She has few peers in modern cinema with her Eva standing alongside other recent, equally compelling characterisations in Young Adam (2003), Julia (2008), and I Am Love (2009). In the key role of the Kevin as a teenager, Miller, who has grown impressively into his frame since City Island (2009), is also impressive, though perhaps fractionally too one-dimensional.

The film is not without flaws. John C. Reilly is miscast, though not detrimentally, as Eva’s blissfully ignorant husband, whilst the credibility of Kevin’s rendering is infinitesimally offset when unnecessarily allowing the boy’s behaviour to become more overt and uncomfortable to watch. Two scenes immediately come to mind here: his ludicrous devouring of a chicken just after his mother tentatively offers to take him out for dinner, and the abnormally intense scrutiny of Kevin devouring a lychee immediately following a scene in which he’s caused the loss of his young sister’s eye.

A very different experience from Lionel Shriver’s source novel (which is told via lengthy letters written by Eva), Ramsay’s film is a strikingly different but equally brilliant work in which the switch of medium has rendered the ability to faithfully translate prose utterly negligible. Though the director’s stylistic approach will alienate some (with the unsubtle sprinkling of the colour red as an all too defining motif perhaps seen as further overkill), We Need to Talk About Kevin offers a striking, often shocking depiction of a profound maternal pain that will leave you reeling but desperate to experience the perverse brilliance of it all over again.

The Paperboy (Daniels, 2012)

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What a wonderfully lurid, sleazy, twisted southern jewel this 2012 film from Lee Daniels is. Replete with off-beat characterisations, pointless diversions, and a swampy, murderous atmosphere, this is certainly a film that defiantly marches to its own beat. Does it have mass appeal? Not on your life. Is it packed with unsavoury elements sure to repel certain audiences? Yes, yes, yes!

In the 1960’s a lawyer, Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), returns to his small Southern home town to investigate the case of a man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), he believes has been wrongfully arrested for murder. Aided by his Miami co-worker, British writer Yardley (David Oyelowo), naïve younger brother Jack (Zack Efron), and the woman, Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), who, through letter exchanges with men in prison has finally settled upon Hillary as her perfect man, Ward begins to dig deeper into the case. The whole deliriously colourful episode is viewed as a flashback and narrated by the Jansen family’s all-knowing maid Anita (Macy Gray).

Though the narrative clearly plays second fiddle to the characters that heedlessly drive it along, a rough, raw vitality is what energises Daniels’ left-of-centre vision for adapting Pete Dexter’s novel to the screen. This rawness is also reflected in the often unconventional visual approach which sets a dulled, dirty colour scheme against strangely incongruous perspectives. You could argue the whole project has been haphazardly wrought but the approach feels daringly original in its own crazy way.

There are memorable scenes aplenty, including the notorious but hilarious urination scene involving Charlotte and Jack, and another vividly realised sexual encounter of sorts in the jailhouse. But it’s the work of the performers that will linger longest in memories. For McConaughey this the continuation of a hot streak which peaked again around this time with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2012). Efron proves he’s capable of striking out successfully against his wholesome image whilst negotiating some tricky scenes with Kidman. Then there’s the startling Cusack who blows perceptions of his once romantic lead status to smithereens.

But it’s Kidman who shines brightest; her daring, luminescent turn is a wonder to behold. Rarely has she been more magnetic on screen, channelling every white trash vixen from a back-catalogue of Jerry Springer specials. Offensive, demented, lazily plotted and overflowing with extraneous lurid asides, The Paperboy (2012), for all its shortcomings, is at least a memorable, deliriously idiosyncratic concoction.