d. Andrea Arnold / UK / 2009 / 123 mins
Viewed at: Lecture Theatre 1 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
I think I made it pretty clear in my original entry on Fish Tank, just how much I admire this film, so – much like my second post on Sleep Furiously – this is more of an augmentation, a reflection on the subtleties that I seemed to have missed the first time around, or for which I simply didn’t find the space or inclination to discuss.
For starters, there is a whole contextualising sub-plot which is only alluded to in unsuccessful phone calls, photographs and steely sideways glances: the fractured relationship between Mia and her best friend. That this eventuates before the film even starts, and yet seems – in some ways at least – to drive the entire narrative, is rather interesting. It could have easily formed the basis for a much more generic teen drama, but writer/director Andrea Arnold simply lets it play out, adding further colour to a deceptively simple, yet heavily intricate set of narrative circumstances.
Last time around, I mentioned the ‘totalistic humanity’ of the characters in Fish Tank, and further to Arnold’s seeming desire to not apportion blame on any singular factor (as is often the want of the cinematic arts), the marginalisation of this narrative thread only adds to the multiplicity of circumstances that make Mia who she is, and cause her to act the way she does, whilst emphasising Arnold’s admirably non-judgmental approach.
Of course, adding to this complexity is the sheer strength of Mia as a character. Although highly compromised by her occasionally violent attitudes, she remains the most resolute of a cast of markedly irresolute characters, and her strength is drawn largely from the choices she makes for herself. This is particularly true in the ‘audition’ scene (and her decision not to dance), as well as the point at which she concedes to her mother’s anger in the penultimate scene by choosing to dance with her, rather than fight.
Mia’s decision to contradict her mother’s harsh parting words with a wordless act of emotional honesty, is closely related to a tendency towards the expression of what I would call violent affection. The contradictory approach to expressing love or respect is most evident when Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) – Mia’s younger sister – addresses Conner (Michael Fassbender) with affectionate menace: “I like you. I’ll kill you last.”
Similarly, in the final scene, as the sisters embrace after they have danced with their mother, Tyler utters an affectionate, yet sarcastic “I hate you”, to which Mia replies, “I hate you too”. Again, there is no doubt that these characters are expressing a genuine sisterly affection, but it also seems clear that years of mutual emotional abuse has meant that, as much as they love each other, the only way this love can be expressed is through the sarcastic use of negative language. It is, again, a kind of violent affection.
Another element of Fish Tank which I think I left unmentioned was its particular use of aspect ratio. By opting for an almost square, television-esque 4:3 frame, Arnold (and her long-serving DOP Robbie Ryan) serve to heighten the physical and emotional containment imposed upon these characters.
Everywhere we look, they are trapped in ‘outdated’ boxes (from the Essex ‘new towns’, to the housing estates, and – metaphorically, at least – the dimensions of the screen). Subconsciously, the shape of the frame also implies a certain ‘reality’, a televisual ‘truth’ that is somehow absent from the usual, escapist, ultra-widescreen fantasies of the average motion picture.
If you haven’t yet seen Fish Tank, I highly recommend you do. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it will certainly prove to be thought provoking for even the most ardent escapist moviegoer.
Also, I should mention that Fish Tank won (and thoroughly deserved) the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film a month or so back, and I really wanted to conclude with Andrea Arnold’s excellent, excellent acceptance speech. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it anywhere online (not even in text form – it’s the only acceptance speech missing from BAFTA’s own list of transcripts, which is odd). Anyway, we’ll have to make do with this equally interesting post-award interview: