Andrea Arnold: interview

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Andrea Arnold's second feature 'Fish Tank' may be the finest British film of the year. Following an Oscar winning short and 2005's moody 'Red Road', Arnold is developing into one of our finest filmmaking talents

If you’re over 30 and used to watch British kids TV in the 1980s, you might remember Andrea Arnold as the roller-skating character Dawn Lodge in Sandi Toksvig’s ITV Saturday morning show ‘No 73’. If not, you might recall her, all flame-haired and breathless, winning an Oscar in 2005 for her short ‘Wasp’ and declaring the occasion ‘the dog’s bollocks’ in front of the great and good of Hollywood. If that, too, escapes the memory, you might well have seen Arnold’s terrific and disturbing first feature, ‘Red Road’, a drama unfolding before surveillance cameras in Glasgow, which was awarded a major prize at Cannes in 2006 and won her a Bafta for best newcomer the following year.

Arnold’s new film, ‘Fish Tank’, is her best yet. It sees this 48 year old from Dartford further hone her exceptional approach to making films: once again she’s telling a story of a woman’s sexual peril in a tense realist drama. Earlier this year, the film won Arnold the Prix de Jury at Cannes for the second time, which further reinforced her reputation as a rising star of world cinema.

What effect has all this adulation had on her? ‘I don’t think I know what it all means,’ she says, admitting she’s still ‘shell-shocked’ from having her picture taken for a national newspaper just minutes before we meet in Covent Garden. ‘I get more opportunities and offers of money for films now than I ever did,’ she admits. ‘When I started “Fish Tank” I was aware I was making another smaller film and some people said I should be making a bigger film with more money, perhaps even a Hollywood film. But I’ve been lucky to have had a lot of freedom. I’m pretty much making the films I want.’

Arnold hates publicity and admits she finds it difficult to sell herself and her films, particularly this time, when she’s wary of ruining the ambiguities that help to make ‘Fish Tank’ such a stimulating film. It’s an intimate account of a 15-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis), who lives on a council estate with her mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and little sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffith). Volatility rules the roost: Mia scraps with teenagers on the estate; Tyler’s mouth is as dirty as the nearby Thames estuary; and Joanne is a firebrand who likes to party.

When Joanne brings home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), it’s hard to judge whether his interest in young Mia is innocent or dangerous. On the one hand, Connor is the only one who shows any interest in Mia’s breakdancing, which we watch her practicing alone in an empty flat. On the other, his friendly advances are suspect for a grown man who until recently was a complete stranger.

‘I’m aware that all the things Connor does, like giving her a piggyback and tickling the younger child and spanking her, could be seen as fatherly or playful or sexual,’ Arnold says guardedly. ‘I like the ambiguity, but I don’t like telling you what I intend. Those relationships are complex.’

Although Fassbender and Wareing are professionals, Arnold found many of her cast while researching the area in Essex where she shot the film last year. ‘We’d drive around and see a gang of kids on a green and go and talk to them to see if there was anyone we could cast,’ she remembers, laughing. But it was one of her assistants who spotted Jarvis on a train platform in Tilbury, where she was having a row with her boyfriend. ‘She thought we were pulling a fast one and wouldn’t give us her number,’ Arnold recalls. A few days later, Jarvis came to auditions at Tilbury Youth Centre. ‘She came over and saw we were genuine.’

The film required Jarvis, who was 17 at the time, to act in some sensitive scenes. Yet Arnold prefers not to show her actors the script until shortly before filming – a method used by, among others, Ken Loach. But surely she had to make sure that Jarvis was comfortable with her storylines?

‘She didn’t know the story, but she knew some of the things in it,’ Arnold explains. ‘I spoke to her about some of the more sensitive scenes.’

Arnold won’t say where the story of Mia comes from, but she admits there’s something of her own background in the film. ‘That whole world was something I felt I needed to get off my chest,’ she says. She wrote the story for the area in Kent where she grew up, only later moving it to the other side of the Thames. ‘But I know the Essex estuary quite well, too, and once I went there I just loved it. It felt very similar to where I’d written for.’

'Fish Tank' is out now.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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