d. Andrea Arnold / 2009 / UK / 123 mins
Viewed at: Screen 3 @ Cinema City (Norwich, UK)
EDIT: 24 March 2015
This review of
My bit for the excellent, excellent, excellent Fish Tank is up now on was previously published on the now-defunct Suite101. Here’s an excerpt: Instead of an excerpt, here’s the whole darn thing.
Very rarely does a film grab you – hook, line and sinker – with the speed and ferocity of Andrea Arnold’s second feature Fish Tank. Less than ten minutes in, and Arnold has already built the kind of visceral, emotional connection to a central character – Mia, exceptionally inhabited by Katie Jarvis – that many directors struggle to do over an entire career. Right from the outset, you are with Mia – visually and emotionally, for better or worse.
Despite Arnold’s best efforts to the contrary, Fish Tank is – in many senses – a fairly conventional ‘coming of age’/’rising above it all’ tale. Mia is the eldest of two, living with her single mother on a council estate in deepest, darkest Essex and harbouring a secret ambition to become a dancer. Her already less than perfect world is turned upside down by the arrival of yet another of her mother’s part-time lovers, Connor (Michael Fassbender), who encourages her dancing dreams and follows a more sinister fantasy of his own.
Much has been made of Fish Tank’s indebtedness to the long and (rightly) proud tradition of Social Realist filmmaking in Britian, and yet it actually offers something more. It differs in one key respect from both the early kitchen-sinkers and more recent social realists such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach: it doesn’t expect us to judge and it definitely doesn’t ask us to pick sides. The subtlety of this film is paramount.
Every key character – including the mother, who is usually to blame for the sins of her offspring in films of this ilk – is developed with such totality that they readily display both their virtues and their darker sides. Most importantly, Arnold seems to suggest that audiences judge these characters at their own peril – they are, after all, simply human. If this totalistic humanity often seems lacking from films of the social realist tradition (and cinema in general), it is this same totalistic humanity – and the relative lack of overbearing judgementalism – that propels Fish Tank into the realms of greatness.
Where Arnold does falter, however, is in her desire to cram as many crises of conscience into two hours as is physically possible. The narrative lurches continuously from one extreme plot point to another, threatening to undermine the film’s more subtle, poetic and realist undertones. By the time Mia kidnaps a child toward the end of the film, we have become thoroughly tired of those ‘will she, wont she’ moments that are clearly crafted to provide an ambiguous and unpredictably reticent central character. Arnold seems determined to consistently remind us of the fact that Mia is an essentially good-natured young woman who just happens to have an uncontrollably wicked streak, but in the end, she only succeeds in ramming it down our throats.
The performances here are second to none. Katie Jarvis is an absolute revelation as the unforgiving tearaway Mia, inhabiting the character with all the spiteful vigor it requires. If anything, Jarvis is underutilized, precisely because we gain much more from her quieter moments – the dance sequences, for instance – than we do from any of her dramatic outbursts. As Connor, Michael Fassbender shows once again why he is one of the most intriguing young actors around today, and he leads a rock solid supporting cast.
From a technical standpoint, Fish Tank is exquisitely shot and stands out as a real feat of gentle, suggestive symbolism – from Mia trying to free a horse which is already doomed, to her escape into dance – performing for Connor against a tropical backdrop in the dappled, California-dawn glow of the streetlights whilst Bobby Womack sings California Dreaming. Music, of course, has a key role in Fish Tank, acting as a central unifying element for the central characters, but also suggesting, perhaps, that music is the only constant, tangible element of their lives.
Andrea Arnold won the Prix du Jury at Cannes 2006 for her debut feature, Red Road, a feat she repeated in 2009 with Fish Tank. But if two consecutive Jury prizes from Cannes isn’t enough to convince audiences of her existence as the brightest directorial talent in Britain, then the sheer force of will and poetic realism that is Fish Tank should be proof enough. With Arnold, it seems certain that British cinema audiences have much to look forward to.