Director: Arnold Arnold
Essex, UK, the present. Mia, a fifteen year old girl lives on a council estate with her feckless mother, Joanne and younger sister, Tyler. Her sole form of self-expression is dance. Mia engages in an argument with some girls on the estate, one of whom she headbutts. Angry, she breaks into a traveller’s site and tries to liberate a chained horse, but is interrupted. One morning, as she dances in the kitchen, she is observed by Connor, the new boyfriend of her mother, to whom Mia is initially hostile, despite Tyler’s friendliness towards him. Connor spends more time at the flat; throwing a party, taking them for a drive – during which he catches a fish with Mia’s help and Connor tends to the wounds Mia suffers in the process.
Mia borrows Connor’s videocamera to audition for a position as dancer at a local club. One evening, when Joanne and Connor return home drunk, Joanne passes out upstairs. Connor asks Mia to show him her audition. They then have sex. The next morning, Connor has left. Mia tracks him down to his home in Tilbury, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, Keira. Connor drives her back to the train station, but she returns, kidnapping Keira whilst she plays in the street. When Keira accidentally falls in the river, Mia rescues her and returns her. Connor then finds Mia and punches her. Mia attends her dance audition, but realising it’s a seedy club, leaves. Mia leaves for Cardiff with Billy, a young man from the traveller’s site.
Perhaps the brightest hope for British cinema currently, Andrea Arnold’s burgeoning career has been synonimised by awards and acclaim at every turn. Her short ‘Wasp’ (2003) won an Oscar, whilst her debut feature ‘Red Road’ (2006), made under the influence of the Dogme ’95 movement won the Jury Prize at Cannes. So the hopes for her latest film, ‘Fish Tank’ were high and she hasn’t disappointed. Like ‘Red Road’, the film received the Jury Prize at Cannes this year, putting Arnold in rare company. ‘Fish Tank’ has already opened to very promising reviews in the British press, though it’s unlikely to crossover into mainstream territory, which is a shame as it’s a very honest, truthful film that shows an insight into a particular social class without resorting to patronising them.
The Essex council estates that bridge the city and the countryside are territory that Arnold knows all too well. ‘Wasp’ covered similar ground, focusing on the efforts of a poor, single mother on an estate to find a new boyfriend/father. This might have been set in Dartford, Arnold’s home town, but it could be anywhere to be honest. Arnold has disagreed with her critics who describe her work as leaning heavily on the grim side of life amongst the socially excluded. She doesn’t view her films this way; that although they’re set in these environments, they’re hardly ‘Nil By Mouth’ territory; that they focus on the lives of her characters as honestly as possible and offer hope. And there are also hints of autobiography here and there. Arnold doesn’t agree that estates are intrinsically depressing places and the film reinforces this.
The casting of Katie Jarvis in the role of Mia has become the stuff of minor cinematic folklore. Arnold’s casting director apparently witnessed her arguing with her boyfriend at Tilbury and recommended her for the part immediately. It’s an inspired decision. Even amongst the professional thesps on show (Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender), Jarvis more than holds her own in this central performance. It’s by some distance the most impressive performance I’ve seen by a young actor. She inhabits Mia so completely that you’d have to imagine that Jarvis and Mia are more or less one in the same. It’s a subtle, nuanced performance, capturing every aspect of Mia’s personality – her anger, her suspicion, her pride, her potential for verbal and physical violence, but also her potential for compassion, demonstrated mostly with her affectionate relationship with the tethered horse. Coming from a family where “I hate you” means the same as “I love you” and where a term of affection is “I’ll kill you last”, it’s no wonder that Mia remains guarded when faced with Connor’s friendly, warm demeanour. Jarvis has since had a child, so let’s hope she returns to acting and she’s some talent.
As the ‘relationship’ between Mia and Connor grows, demonstrated by slightly worrying moments of physical touching and the character’s accentuated breathing (through some neat sound effects work), there’s only one way this is going to go. Arnold allows this to be signposted a mile off. It doesn’t come as any surprise to us when the inevitable occurs. This makes it all the more disturbing of course, because we’ve had time to consider what will take place between Mia and Connor and even when it occurs, it’s extremely difficult to watch. What Arnold, to her credit, doesn’t do is try to explain to justify why Connor acts how he does. Whilst Mia’s family wear their motivations on their sleeve, Connor’s life is shrouded in mystery. Of course we never believe him when his mysterious ‘phone calls and seemingly being kicked out of home are because of his mother. We always suspect he has a family somewhere, but why latch onto Joanne and her family? And why then have sex with Mia? It’s hinted at some jealousy towards her relationship with Billy, the boy from the travellers site. There’s so many questions left unanswered. Connor’s departure sets in motion a peculiar revenge episode, which I’m not sure I found really convincing; from the way Mia was able to kidnap Keira to her seemingly homicidal intent. The positive byproduct of his departure was at least to facilitate a stronger relationship between Mia and Joanne.
Arnold and her regular DoP Robbie Ryan make the most of their settings; from the claustrophobic council estates that provide the film with its title to the evocative, wide-open spaces of the countryside, there’s a real sense of poetry here but never a fetishistic dwelling upon the seamier side of things. The relationship between Mia and Connor is also shot in a hazy, woozy fashion, as if reflective of a young woman’s sexual awakening, capturing the confusion and sensuality perfect. Complimenting the impressive visual work is a rich sense of authenticity and reality from the protagonists and milieu. ‘Fish Tank’ sometimes loses its way in its final third, once Mia discovers Connor’s secret, but on the whole it’s a striking, sympathetic film that largely deserves the reputation it’s acquiring.