Modern Masterpieces #4: Fish Tank
Very few films are as morally or emotionally complex as Andrea Arnold’s BAFTA-winning Fish Tank. The main character is a hostile teenage girl who only stops swearing at her family when she’s getting into scraps with other girls from the rundown estate she lives on. Her Mum is a drunk who forces her kids out of the flat so she can continue partying with her friends. The only seemingly nice character in the film might just be an abusive creep. Over a gritty, often painfully realistic two hour runtime, Arnold takes you on a journey; by the end, you’ll be shocked, angry, and possibly even heartbroken. Welcome to the unflinching world of Fish Tank.
Mia is a 15 year old girl living in an East London Council Estate. She doesn’t go to school; instead, the first five minutes of the film depict her daily routine of dancing in an abandoned flat, headbutting a local girl, and being berated by her abusive Mum. Though you might be tempted to write off Mia as a horrible person given her violent behaviour in the opening, Arnold also shows her soft side. Mia swears at and hits other girls in the playground, but her Mum does the exact same to her when she gets home, suggesting the cycle of abuse will keep on turning. Later, after she escapes from home, Mia tries to free a malnourished horse, chained up by local travellers. She is unsuccessful in saving the horse, but it does lead to her meeting the seemingly nice Billy (Harry Treadaway), who might be her only saving grace.
Mia is played by Katie Jarvis. Jarvis is not an actress. She has no screen credits before Fish Tank, and only two since (with a six year gap since this film). In one of the best casting stories around, Arnold spotted Jarvis arguing with her boyfriend outside a train station, and realised she’d be perfect for the part of the feisty teenager. A few auditions later, and Jarvis was cast. Casting a non-professional unknown worked paid off in spades for Arnold, as it’s hard to imagine a trained actor giving a performance as raw and realistic as this. Jarvis might not always be the greatest actress (in her more ‘actor-y’ moments, she can be a little stilted or wooden), but she’s always completely honest in a way that makes you wonder how much is acting and how much is just her true self. It’s a remarkable performance, sympathetic even at her most aggressive, devastating at her most tender, and one that earned her a deserving British Independent Film Award for Most Promising Newcomer.
Mia’s routine life of dancing and aggression is dramatically shaken up when the bare chested Connor (Michael Fassbender, still relatively unknown) appears in her kitchen one morning, having spent the night with her Mum. Complimenting Mia on her dancing, Connor appears to be a pretty decent, if slightly sleazy, guy, even playing around with her younger sister before he leaves for work. Jarvis does sterling work here, clearly in disbelief that anybody would actually compliment her dancing without it being sarcasm, but gradually realising he might actually be a nice guy.
Is it a teenage crush? Is it a neglected girl looking for a father figure? Arnold toes the line beautifully, making it almost impossible to fully understand the motivations of Fish Tank’s characters. When Connor takes the family out to a creek and teaches Mia to catch fish with her bare hands, there’s a sense of family bonding and unity (it’s one of the few truly happy scenes in the film). When Mia climbs out of the water to find she’s cut her leg, Connor patches her up and carries her on his back; Arnold’s use of slow motion in this scene highlights it as something of a revolutionary moment for Mia. Is this a sexual awakening, the realisation that she is truly attracted to Connor?
Slowly, these flirtatious, inappropriately sexual moments become more frequent between Connor and Mia. Where once he simply encouraged her to dance with him in a car park, a fairly silly, innocuous gesture, now he buys her a video camera (to film an audition for a “dance club”), changes in front of her and, in a sudden and rather alarming sequence, puts her over his knee and spanks her. Mia’s reaction is telling; she lashes out and screams at him to stop, yet watches him leave the room sadly and suddenly disappointed.
Due to Mia’s young age, it’s clear this relationship is inappropriate (and Mia is obviously inexperienced with boys and sexuality), but the ambiguity of the writing and the direction keeps you asking questions, mostly about Connor’s inner thinking. Is he a paedophile, slowly worming his way into the affections of an underage girl? Does he really have feelings for Mia’s Mum, or is it Mia he wants? Does he want Mia at all, or is he playing a dangerous game that is spiralling out of control?
It’s almost a running joke by this point that Michael Fassbender is Ford On Film’s favourite actor (that joke is unlikely to change with upcoming reviews of Slow West and Steve Jobs in the near future), but it can’t be understated how terrific he is in this film. It was many people’s first exposure to him, and it’s clear even as he plays a realistic, recognisable working man that he was something special.
Looking less “Hollywood” than he does now, due to his unkempt look and skinny frame (still underweight from his time playing Bobby Sands in Hunger), it’s surprising just how believable Fassbender is as, for lack of a better phrase, an ordinary bloke. Whether singing along to Bobby McFerrin on a long car ride or busting out a few moves in a pub car park, Fassbender has a certain twinkle in his eye, a dangerous charisma that can make you believe anybody, especially a family as chaotic as Mia’s, could fall in love with him and get into some dangerous situations. It’s not surprising to learn Quentin Tarantino cast Fassbender as a suave soldier for Inglourious Basterds the very same year.
The central question (what exactly is the nature of Mia and Connor’s relationship?) is answered in the second half of Fish Tank, but to go into too much detail about the film’s second hour would be to spoil one of the most unpredictable dramas in recent memory. There are uncomfortable encounters, shocking revelations and tense scenes involving an innocent young child. Mia quickly reveals herself as a character unable to avoid misery, as several major elements of her life fall apart, leading to a humiliating audition and sad news about the horse she tried to save. It would be easy for Fish Tank to end on this depressing note, but Arnold isn’t completely cruel to her characters; Billy offers Mia last minute redemption, and the film ends with a shot of balloons rising high over the tower block, and the sense that Mia might have finally left her little world behind.
Is Fish Tank named for Mia’s empty flat she uses to endlessly practice dancing? The claustrophobic 1.13:1 aspect ratio Arnold uses to frame her big personalities? Or is it more general, referring to Mia’s life, trapped in a cycle of aggression and suffering? Whatever the reason, Arnold’s title may conjure images of tiny people in a tiny world, but Fish Tank is anything but. It may tell a relatively small story, featuring only a few people who generally aren’t the focus of many films, but the story of first time love, impossible dreams, and wanting to move on from your suffocating little town is universal. Arnold directs incredible performances from Fassbender and especially first timer Jarvis, but it is her grasp of complex emotions and questionable morals that make the film feel close to perfect. Nobody in the last decade has made a film as raw and challenging as Andrea Arnold made with the stunning Fish Tank.
By Harry J. Ford
Follow Ford On Film on twitter: @Ford_On_Film
Like Ford On Film on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FordOnFilm/