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The White Ribbon simmers with suspense, Fish Tank comes of age

by Mark Burger

Writer/director Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (Das Weisse Band) offers a tantalizing, occasionally ovelong, combination of fear, mystery and paranoia — and once again demonstrates the filmmaker’s knack for suspense.

The story takes place in a small town in pre- World War I Germany, where a series of strange accidents and incidents begin occurring with eerie regularity. There also seems to be a collective change in the behavior of the town’s children —and not for the better.

There’s a subtle but unmistakable parallel to the approach of World War I. It’s as if the impending violence had somehow infected this town before the rest of Germany — and everyone is powerless, for one reason or another, to do anything to prevent it.

The fabric of the town is unraveling by small, yet noticeable, degrees — yet too many of the adults are too consumed with their own lives and secrets (some quite dire, and likely a catalyst for the strange goings-on) to assemble the pieces.

Only the mild-mannered schoolteacher (Christian Friedel) begins to sense the true extent of what is transpiring, yet he too is distracted by his own personal concerns, including a budding romance with a young nanny, Eva (Leonie Benesch), and even he never has all the pieces.

Ernst Jacobi provides the film’s narration as the schoolteacher, now elderly and re-telling this terrible chapter in his life, almost as if it is a secret he has held for many years.

Running over two hours, the film does not move at lightning speed, and the pacing drifts from time to time, yet the film never loses its grip. There is a consistent, slowly mounting sense of dread to the proceedings, and the voyeuristic point-of-view seems designed to make the viewer feel complicit to the strange goings-on. Even then, however, the audience isn’t privy to everything. What is unseen, or hinted at, can be just as suspenseful and unnerving as something shown explicitly — as Haneke repeatedly demonstrates here.

The White Ribbon was originally shot in color and then digitally desaturated into black and white, lending the film an otherworldly, occasionally expressionistic atmosphere — and earned cinematographer Christian Berger a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. The look of the film is overwhelming, and certainly augments the level of tension that Haneke is aiming for. Even after the film is over, there is a lingering feeling of unease.

(In German with English subtitles)

Writer/director Andrea Arnold’s award-winning Fish Tank (opening this Friday) is the latest in a recent string of hard-edged coming-of-age tales as seen through the eyes and experiences of a young girl. In most cases — Abbie Cornish (Somersault), Carey Mulligan (An Education) and Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe (Precious) — these films have launched the careers of their leading ladies.

Fish Tank isn’t as severe as Precious, but the tone of this story falls nearer to it than the relatively genteel An Education. This is not a happy picture, nor one to be taken lightly.

Nor, fortunately, is it heavy-handed, thanks in large part to Katie Jarvis, cast in the pivotal role of Mia, an angry, rebellious and, as it turns out, highly vulnerable 15-year-old girl around whom the story revolves.

Mia likes hip-hop music and horses, but she doesn’t much like people and she certainly doesn’t trust them, particularly her slatternly mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) who, judging by her appearance, wasn’t much older than Mia was when she had her. Mia also has a younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who’s developing her own hardened heart. (Mia’s father is barely mentioned, and it’s almost a surprise when someone calls her by her last name — Williams — near the end of the film.)

Exacerbating the tension between daughter and mother is Joanne’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a younger man whose mere presence clearly hints at trouble.

Jarvis, who had never acted before, has already reaped awards and accolades for her debut performance, but she receives solid support throughout by Wareing, Griffiths and Fassbender, all of whom perform credibly. Even when Fish Tank veers into familiar territory — which it does — the consistently fine quality of the acting keeps the story from lapsing into the routine.

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