By Don Simpson | March 4, 2010
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writer: Andrea Arnold
Starring: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender
As an heir apparent to the British social realist tradition of Ken Loach’s working-class dramas, director Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is a painfully bleak portrait of modern life on an Essex estate (which, for us Yanks, is a half-step up from the ghetto) – a steely urban wasteland located somewhere near Tilbury.
We never witness the protagonist – an aggressive and jaded 15-year-old named Mia (Katie Jarvis) – attend school (apparently she has been expelled and may be going to boarding school next) and she is rarely out of her life’s uniform of choice: hoodie and sweat pants. Mia resides in a dreary non-descript council flat with her mother – more like a slutty, foul-mouthed and foul-tempered older sister – Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and a potty-mouthed, beer drinking and cigarette smoking prepubescent younger sister – Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Together (with no father in sight) they are indeed the poster family for “broken Britain” – the hopelessly marginalized class of high-rise, low-income Britain. The most unpleasantly sour, piss-off existence if ever there was one. Together they personify the mantra of the prominently-featured Nas track: “life’s a bitch and then you die.”
Apparently the only form of communication for Mia’s family is yelling at outlandishly loud decibels (Arnold’s casting agent discovered Jarvis in the midst of an argument with her boyfriend at Tilbury station in Essex) – and their language is riddled by profanity and hatred. When a working man – an Irishman named Connor (Michael Fassbender) – enters their lives as Joanne’s new boyfriend, the three intense females begin to mellow out thanks to the lulling nature of his attentive charm and apparent kindness. In fact, Connor seems to be the only factor that can keep the three females in the same room without an incredibly violent combustion. Connor even goes as far as ushering them to the country – thus forcing them to peacefully coexist for an extended period of time while in the restricted confines of a car. During this excursion, Connor introduces them to his favorite music – it is “weird shit” (as Joanne calls it), like Bobby Womack’s “California Dreamin'” and “Get Up Offa That Thing” by James Brown, but they adapt to it quickly. It is not long before Womack’s “California Dreamin'” is Mia’s favorite song and it becomes the soundtrack to her fantasy of escaping the concrete jungle of Essex.
Connor’s cooling affect seems to be strongest with Mia – when she is around Connor her personality is toned-down to somewhere around content bordering on pleasant. Yet, we are not fooled by this: from Connor’s initial ogling of Mia as she sensually dances in the kitchen (“like a black” – which, according to Connor, is a compliment) to Mia’s wanting stare of Connor’s bare-chested body, it is easy to predict down which path this story will eventually travel. Their relationship becomes disturbingly more heated as they endlessly alternate between being the victim and the perpetrator in the pedophilic scenario. Mia just wants someone to love her (she certainly does not receive any positive affirmations from her mother or sister) while Connor is just hoping to get those damn sweat pants off of Mia.
Trapped on the wrong side of the unforgiving glass walls of lower-class Britain (most likely the fish tank to which the film’s title refers), Mia’s pent-up anger and frustration is busting at the seams. The question is whether or not Mia will ever be strong enough to shatter the glass in order to break free of the inherent restraints of her family’s class. Cramped in a claustrophobic 4×3 ratio, director of photography Robbie Ryan purposefully and effectively encages (and enrages) Mia’s energies – as she quite literally pounds against the outer frames of the screen while she dances.
This is definitely not a healthy environment for a 15-year old (and especially her younger sister) to be raised – no hope, no future and no love. It is overtly apparent that Joanne only cares about getting drunk and getting laid; her children are pesky annoyances that continually get in the way of her fun. Joanne’s feeble efforts to keep Mia away from the bumping and grinding parties going on in their living room at night is most likely due to sexual competition, not good parenting (it is obvious that Joanne does not care about keeping Mia and Tyler away from alcohol).
Such a grim picture, but we do glimpse some goodness and naivety within Mia. For one – she is fascinated by, and repeatedly attempts to free, a dying old horse helplessly chained in a parking lot alongside a highway. But, Mia has her excessively evil moments as well – such as the harrowing sequence on the Essex marshes with Connor’s young daughter Keira (Sydney Mary Nash).
Fish Tank’s bravado is a hard kick in the balls for all of the sexist and demeaning jokes that have been made about Essex women over the years. Despite Mia’s penchant for liters of booze and profane tirades, she exudes a relentless and spirited will to do better for herself. Mia is motivated not by role models or the support of friends and family, but solely by the hope that there is something better out there than what she currently has.
First-timer Jarvis gives a bitterly honest lead performance, one that is a schizophrenic (or at least hormonal instability) mix of tenacity, meanness and fragility. The character of Mia exudes so many emotions in so little time – yet Jarvis ties them all together so authentically and effortlessly. The greatest compliment to an actor is to say that they did not appear to be acting – and Jarvis is not portraying Mia, she is Mia.
Admittedly, I did not enjoy much of the music per se but the soundtrack of Fish Tank is flawless nonetheless. Not only do the songs fit the characters and mood of the film like a glove, but the lyrics of the songs provide greater meaning and depth to the onscreen events. In some instances, the song lyrics literally become part of the dialogue as if the singer was an omnipotent narrator. Fish Tank is proof of one of the great potentials of soundtracks – the use of lyrical songs to work with and advance the narrative of the film.
Fish Tank scored the Prix du Jury at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Andrea Arnold won Best Director and Katie Jarvis won Most Promising Newcomer at the 2009 British Independent Film Awards.