Underseen Movie: ‘Fish Tank’ – 2009 Jury Prize Winner at Cannes

Here’s a little British independent feature which came out at the beginning of 2010 in America after being named the Jury Prize Winner at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, however, it barely registered in movie theaters, so here’s hoping it finds an audience on physical media and/or cable. “Fish Tank” is a raw and unsentimental character study that pulls no punches in its portrayal of a tough and troubled teenage girl growing up in an East London council estate. It was directed by Andrea Arnold, an actress turned filmmaker who previously directed “Red Road,” and it stars Katie Jarvis as Mia, the teenage girl you may figure is up to no good just by looking at her. There is no Hollywood gloss on display here, and the environment this young woman inhabits feels both real and rundown, just like the other characters who are stuck there with her.

Now council estates are to England what public housing or “the projects” are to cities all over the United States; rundown buildings designed for the economically challenged that carry a stigma of poverty and endless crime. Now whether this is true or not, this is usually the impression people have of these places. It is clear from the start that Mia, along with her mother and younger sister Tyler, have lived in this place for a long time, and it has shaped them into the people they are today. There is seemingly no room for much in the way of respect or gratitude towards neighbors or strangers.

Mia appears to have it the roughest compared as she has been kicked out of school and seemingly wanders around the estate aimlessly. We see her putting up a seriously tough front for some girls whose dancing moves she bluntly criticizes as sucking big time, and this leads to her head-butting a girl in the face which shows how quick she is to defend herself. At home in one of the many far too cramped apartments in the council estate, her mother continually treats her like dirt and appears more interested in partying and getting drunk rather than being a parent. The only real tender moment between them comes at the end of the film, and you will know it when you see it. As for Mia’s younger sister Tyler, she has a vocabulary which Chloe Grace Moretz’s character from “Kick Ass” sound PG rated in comparison.

Being the loner she is, Mia’s only escape is practicing her dance moves in an abandoned apartment near where she lives. This proves to be her only real outlet for the frustration and aggravation which has consumed her life to this point. She is shy in revealing this part of herself to just about anyone as vulnerabilities are easily spotted and exploited for all the humiliation which can be derived from them. No one is ever quick to show any weakness in this kind of environment.

Into this environment enters her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor, a security guard at a nearby hardware store played by Michael Fassbender. Mia is never quick to warm up to others she doesn’t know well, but she quickly develops an interest in Connor who becomes the father figure she lacks. From the moment we see Mia help him catch a fish in the lake with his bare hands (it’s possible), he inspires her to try new things and open herself up to possibilities which previously seemed beyond her reach.

This leads to a great deal of tension in “Fish Tank” as we cannot help but wonder if this relationship is going to end up crossing any boundaries. There are moments captured where the chemistry between Mia and Connor is so strong, you fear the possible and destructive ways this relationship can go to. Words are not needed to illustrate the bond they have, be it when Mia films Connor with a video camera while he’s getting dressed for work, or when Connor gives Mia a piggy back ride out of the river after she injures herself. Their growing discoveries of one another and what they are capable of is impossible to ignore, and we can see the positives of this even while the negatives are never far off.

Arnold films the movie in a way where nothing feels staged, and every character and location feels authentic to what it must be like in reality. I’m not sure a movie like this could have been filmed any other way and have the same effect. She also captures the suffocating environment of being in these big government buildings which are treated more like dumps for the lowest on the economic ladder. The apartments themselves are ridiculously tiny, and there is no privacy for any family member who has to live there. Places like these must feel like prisons to those who inhabit them, and Arnold captures this mindset clearly to where you feel as helpless as these characters do.

As bleak as “Fish Tank” is though, its ending offers hope that anyone can escape such a confining environment if they have the means and the foresight to change their lives for the better. Some are too far gone to be saved, but Mia still has a chance to move forward, and her relationship with Connor makes this clear to her.

Katie Jarvis who plays Mia in had no real acting experience before she got cast in this movie. It turns out she got an audition after one of the casting assistants saw her arguing with her boyfriend quite loudly outside a train station. Indeed, this role not only requires an actress who comes off as tough, but one who inhabits a role more than play it. While a lot of struggling actors out there may hate the fact Jarvis got one of the luckiest breaks ever, it makes a lot of sense Arnold would cast someone who came from this environment.

The role Jarvis plays is not an easy one to portray. Mia has to be tough yet show just enough vulnerability to let the audience look past the defenses she has built up. She also has to be shy but angry, curious without spelling it out for the audience, and her character needs to evolve from the person we see at the start of the movie. This makes her performance all the more revelatory because you come out thinking she has been acting all her life. She successfully captures all the subtle nuances of Mia to bring out the complexities which makes her more than just any other angry young person. Truly, it’s a daunting role for even the most experienced actor, and Jarvis comes out of the picture looking like a pro.

The other key performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Connor. Fassbender has been in movies like Steve McQueen’s “Hunger,” and he stole a number of scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” As Connor, he comes across as a generous human being, and it’s commendable that he would want to try and be a father figure to someone else’s children. This is something most people would NOT want to do. But her also gives Connor an enigmatic nature which makes him hard to pin down and figure out. Like Mia, you want to more about this guy than what he is telling everyone around him.

The only real problem I had with “Fish Tank” involved one character’s revelation in the last half. It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but it was one of the few times where I have watched a movie and left it begging for more answers. Mysteries which stay after a movie ends can be fascinating, but others are not so lucky. Some movies need and demand closure, and this one could have used more of one. Either that, or I completely missed something…

I meant to see this film when it briefly played in theaters back in January 2010, but I never got around to it. When I did, it was playing at New Beverly Cinema in a double feature with “An Education.” That film featured another breakout performance from Carey Mulligan, another actress who seemingly came out of nowhere. Having seen both, it was clear why the New Beverly put them together; they are both about the same thing. Each is about a young British girl who feels trapped in an environment they desperately want to escape. Just when they think they have found a way out, reality rears its ugly head and takes any possibilities for an exciting life away from them rather cruelly. Still, both women rise above the pain inflicted on them and find a way to move on in spite of what they were forced to endure.

For those of you with a hankering for dramas with raw emotion and non-manufactured realism, “Fish Tank” is definitely a movie I recommend for you to see. As I write this, the Criterion Collection has released a special edition of it on DVD and Blu-ray. It features a digital transfer of the film, some short films by Arnold, and interviews with the actors, one of which is with Fassbender. In a time where the local cinema is getting overrun by blockbuster movies and immortal franchises, movies like this demand to be seen, and this is one of them.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Harry Treadaway Discusses Keeping the Suspense Strong in ‘Honeymoon’

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Directed by Leigh Janiak, “Honeymoon” is a taut horror movie which stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as a newly married couple who spend their honeymoon in a secluded cabin by the lake where things soon become very chaotic. One night he wakes up to find that his wife is not in bed, and he eventually finds her sleepwalking in the woods. She doesn’t remember how she got there, but then strange things begin to happen as she suddenly forgets how to make coffee, burns the food while cooking it, and ends up swimming in the lake despite it being incredibly cold. The husband begins to wonder if this is the same person he just married, and the movie keeps you wondering the same exact thing all the way to the very end.

For me, “Honeymoon” was fascinating because a lot of horror and thriller movies these days have a hard time maintaining such a strong level of tension and suspense. The way I see it, pulling this feat off could not have been the least bit easy for either the director or the actors. I came out of it desperately wanting to know how they succeeded in keeping things tense throughout, and I got my chance at the press day for “Honeymoon” which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Treadaway has appeared in movies like “City of Ember,” “Fish Tank” and “The Lone Ranger,” and people these days probably know him best as Victor Frankenstein on the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful.” I asked him what it was like maintaining the suspense of “Honeymoon” as an actor, and his response showed how much thought he put into his role.

“I think it came from the great script. It came from the fact that it was set up with this foundation of reality and the horror came through,” Treadaway said. “The trickiest parts were the sort of middle ground almost because you kind of have to look at how you can tell that this is a happy relationship, and you kind of see where it’s got to be when it’s at its most horrific. But it’s won or lost probably in the way we see his first reaction to her going sleepwalking. If you buy that or not and if you buy the way that he’s reacting to her certain motor neuron skills slightly going weird or her forgetting certain elements of making coffee, you don’t just flip out straight away and go ‘you’ve lost your mind’ and you don’t ignore it. So, it’s how you work your way through that, and I think that was in the script and that was the fun part, playing with the elements.”

“Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital. For horror fans, it’s a real treat.

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Leigh Janiak on Her Directorial Debut, ‘Honeymoon’

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With the horror film “Honeymoon,” Leigh Janiak gives us one of the strongest directorial debuts I have seen in a while. It stars Harry Treadaway and Rose Leslie as Paul and Bea, a newlywed couple who spend their honeymoon at a beautiful cabin overlooking the river only to see their new beginning descend into chaos as sinister forces begin to tear them apart. For a first-time filmmaker, Janiak never takes a wrong step as she generates strong levels of suspense and horror and succeeds in maintaining them all the way to the movie’s infinitely creepy conclusion.

Janiak dropped by the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Honeymoon” press day just before the movie was released. She studied creative writing and comparative religion at New York University, and then she later enrolled in a doctoral program at the University of Chicago which dealt with modern Jewish studies with an emphasis on violence and identity in post–World War II Hebrew literature. It was there her interest in movies skyrocketed after she met a group of student filmmakers known as Far Escape Films. As a result, she dropped out of her doctoral studies and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career making movies.

Many wondered what horror movies inspired “Honeymoon” as well as which ones are her favorites. In regards to inspirations, her answer was a bit of a surprise.

“Well certainly ‘The Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is the most kind of thematically influential on it,” Janiak said. “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ and ‘The Shining,’ those are kind of my favorite horror films generally. I like grounded horror where you really spend time with the characters and you get to this place of uncomfortableness.”

For myself, I was very interested in finding out how she maintained the suspense throughout “Honeymoon.” I kept waiting for the movie to make a wrong turn which would ruin everything which came before it, but that never happened. For a first time director, she really kept us on the edge of our seats throughout in a way I didn’t expect. I asked her how she managed to accomplish this feat.

“I think that the reason that works is because Harry and Rose’s characters are each transforming in different ways,” Janiak said. “So it was only challenging in so far as knowing that Rose would be on one page for her character internally and Harry is on a completely different one. We have to make them still interacting and keeping these things from one another so we recognize that as an audience we sense the unease. We sense things are going wrong with each of them even though we don’t know what and just making it feel like ‘okay enough. We know something secret is happening.’ It was just about balancing their transformations.”

After the interview ended, I asked Janiak which version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” she likes the best. There have been four different cinematic adaptations of Jack Finney’s novel “The Body Snatchers,” the most recent being the 2007 movie “The Invasion,” and she said she enjoyed the first two versions the most but the one with Kevin McCarthy, the 1956 version directed by Don Siegel, is her favorite

Here’s hoping that we get to see many more movies from Leigh Janiak in the near future. “Honeymoon” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

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Honeymoon

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Honeymoon” starts off with us viewing the pre-wedding video of Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie), and it’s the kind of video couples end up watching on their 10th anniversary. It also helps set up Paul and Bea as the perfect couple, and the chemistry between the actors is very strong to where we are eager to spend a lot of time with them.

For their honeymoon, these two lovebirds elect to spend it in a cabin on the lake. As is the case with horror movies, the weekend they pick to vacation at this cabin also happens to be when everybody else is out of town.

To be honest, the cabin they end up staying at is really beautiful. It’s not like those ratty old cabins we’ve seen in the “Evil Dead” movies, but instead the kind my parents always liked to take me and my bother to on family vacations. It has a docking station for a boat and all the amenities like a stove which any cabin requires. And, of course, it is located in an area of the United States which doesn’t get very good cell phone reception, if any.

Paul and Bea are having the time of their lives, but things take a strange turn when Bea suddenly goes missing and Paul finds her out in the woods naked and disoriented. She has no idea of how she got there, and Paul takes her back to the cabin. From there, Bea begins to act very strangely and Paul begins to wonder if she is the same person he just married. As her bizarre behavior escalates, strange things start happening like shafts of light invading the seemingly peaceful cabin, and scissors being used in ways almost as painful as what we witnessed in Lars Von Trier’s “Antichrist.”

I kept waiting for “Honeymoon” to fall apart. The suspense keeps building and building throughout, and I feared the movie would eventually mess things up by revealing too much. The fact it doesn’t is a testament to director Leigh Janiak who keeps ratcheting up the tension just when you think it’s on the verge of disintegrating. According to her IMDB page, Janiak has worked mostly as an assistant to various movie producers, and “Honeymoon” marks her directorial debut. I honestly find this to be a very impressive debut as she avoids a lot of rookie mistakes many filmmakers tend to make their first time out. She also doesn’t rely on a lot of blood and gore (although there is a bit of them here and there), and she instead lets the characters drive the movie while creating an atmosphere which makes you feel increasingly isolated from everything and everybody else.

I’m not familiar with Rose Leslie’s work as an actress, partly because I haven’t watched “Game of Thrones” which she has appeared on. On top of giving us a perfect American accent, she makes her character of Bea very down to earth to where we shudder as she endures things no human being should ever have to. She also has a very natural and appealing quality which makes us care even more about her horrific predicament. It’s a surprise to learn this is one of her very first movies as she shows a confidence in front of the camera which takes a long time to build up, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.

Treadaway, whom you might remember from the Showtime series “Penny Dreadful,” also turns in an equally strong performance as Paul. While a lot of actors in horror movies tend to emote more than act, you can tell Treadaway isn’t faking a single emotion we see him experiencing onscreen. He drags us almost forcefully into Paul’s mindset as he desperately tries to help the love of his life, and he makes you feel his desperation as it becomes increasingly evident time is running out for him to do so.

“Honeymoon” ends on an ambiguous note which may drive some audience members who want everything spelled out for them crazy, but it shows just how effective Janiak’s work as a director is. She keeps stringing us along and keeps us intrigued all the way through, and the movie’s final moment taps into our own dark and primal fears. There are no easy answers, only an inevitability the characters try to resist.

Everyone involved in “Honeymoon’s” production clearly had more on their mind than just giving you the same old thing. It deserves a much bigger audience than it has received so far. My hope is horror fans will check it out sooner rather than later.

* * * ½ out of * * * *