English Title: Fish Tank
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: BBC, UKFC, Kasander, Limelight/Artificial Eye
Director: Andrea Arnold
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Cinematographer: Robert Ryan
Editor: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Runtime: 117 minutes
Genre: Drama/Social Realism
Fifteen-year-old Mia lives in a high-rise flat in Essex with her mother and her younger sister. She is a rebellious loner whose relationship with her mother is mutually antagonistic and verbally abusive. Mia has a secret passion for dancing, which she hopes will be her ticket out of her grim everyday life, and she determinedly practices her routines in an abandoned flat. When her mother’s charismatic and good looking new boyfriend Connor encourages and praises her dancing, Mia is drawn closer to him, happy that someone is taking an interest in her. But Connor may not be entirely motivated by a paternal concern and his interest in her may even be predatory.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold is distinctive in contemporary British film culture in her use of social realist aesthetics to focus on the lives of girls and women in working-class communities. While her settings have ranged from her native Dartford in the Oscar-winning short film Wasp (2003), to Glasgow for the surveillance drama Red Road (2006) and finally to the high-rise estates of Essex for Fish Tank, all three films are connected through their focus on female experience. Although the most obvious points of contextualization for Arnold’s films are contemporary works such as Shane Meadows’s Somers Town (2008), or Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen (2002), there are noticeable links with older British cinema traditions. For instance, Fish Tank’s study of an awkward teenager’s sexual awakening and her antagonistic relationship with her sexually-provocative mother echoes the mother/daughter dynamic in the British New Wave milestone A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961).
Akin to the casting methods used by Loach and Meadows, Arnold wanted a non-professional actor for the central role in Fish Tank, someone who would not merely play the character of combative teenager Mia but understand her intimately through her own life experience. When Katie Jarvis was spotted arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury railway station, she was hastily signed up to play Mia. Jarvis exceeds all expectations of a complete newcomer to acting, giving a riveting performance that oscillates between sullen anger and heart-breaking vulnerability. Ambiguity is the keynote of Michael Fassbender’s performance as Mia’s mum’s amiably sexy Irish boyfriend Connor, initially behaving towards Mia in ways that could be simultaneously interpreted as warmly avuncular or sexually loaded. As in her previous films, Arnold evokes her heroine’s sexual desire through an aesthetic of a female gaze: examples include the close-up of Danny Dyer’s mouth from Nathalie Press’s lustful perspective in Wasp, the heroine’s tracking of her future lover via CCTV in Red Road, and in Fish Tank via Mia’s use of the video camera to record and play back a bare-chested Connor as he dresses, as well as her covert voyeuristic observations of her mother and Connor’s lovemaking. Arnold also communicates sexual attraction in more sensual terms with slow-motion close-ups of Mia enjoying the physical closeness of a piggy-back ride, or breathing in Connor’s freshly-spritzed aftershave when he bends over her.
Fish Tank refuses gushing sentimentality. Although we empathize with her, Mia is also capable of cruelty, foregrounded in one stomach-churning sequence where we fear she may commit a terrible act of revenge. Lest we assume that Fish Tank is directly autobiographical, given Andrea Arnold’s own Thames Estuary upbringing and her early career as a dancer, the director provides an important corrective: ‘Those things have never directly happened to me. My mind goes places, I have an imagination.’
Author of this review: Melanie Williams