Stepping up to make the first film in Lars Von Trier’s proposed Advanced Party trilogy, Andrea Arnold delivered a powerhouse of a debut feature film in Red Road, one which the Von had to admit in his gruff monotone, “…had massive balls”. Though the other films (all to be set in Scotland, feature the same cast and to be written and directed by first time directors) are yet to be made, Arnold has set up a film to beat and in Fish Tank has once again produced a very real, darkly funny and ultimately hopeful portrait of small time England.
Like her Oscar winning short Wasp, Arnold’s second feature proper, is part Ken Loach social-realism, part Lynne Ramsey dreamer tale but with a voice all of its own. Shot with a serene grit in a 1:1 square format by Arnold regular Robbie Ryan. Every nuance of harsh beauty is sieved out of the council estate on which its set, where Mia (a staggering debut performance by Katie Jarvis) lives and battles her single mum (Kiersten Wearing) and her younger sister Tyler in a tiny flat with their dog, the brilliantly named Tennants. Her viciousness, detachment and attraction to the bottle cultivated first hand by the completely un-respectable former.
The intense, forever track suited, loner drinks cider alone in an empty flat she can break into on the estate, the only place she can practice her dance moves, with out being bothered (or should that be bovvered?) fights locals and loses friends as quick as she makes them.
Enter Connor (another measured Micheal Fassbender performance), Mia’s mum’s latest beau, a soft voiced Irish man who’s openness scares and predictably angers Mia at first but soon enough the family’s dynamic has to change to allow in probably the only warmth the girls have felt in many years. It’s this new force that turns Fish Tank into an awesomely powerful film. Between Fassbender’s father figure, Mia’s rage and short bouts of happiness, her Mother’s spiteful childish parenting and the constantly hilarious potty mouthed little Tyler, Fish Tank’s tone is often startlingly tense and wonderfully complex.
As Mia gets more attached to Connor and is actually encouraged and nurtured toward her dreams instead of laughed at because of them, her inablitly in knowing how to handle affection turns into something very dark indeed and Arnold makes us watch in close up.
Fassbender and Jarvis chemistry is a joy and although Mia’s aggression is the over powering hook throughout the film, for me, that makes it doubly amazing that there’s an immense feeling of hope and apathy for the little tyrant that seeps in during the films closing moments.
The director’s constant focus on Mia is perfect, there’s barley a frame that she isn’t in, which could have been a mistake with such a bare story line but Jarvis’ naturalism is astounding to watch. A chance meeting between her and Arnold at a train station at which the young girl was screaming at her boy friend reportedly drove the director to cast her in the film. Her intensity is perfectly channeled.
Whether it’s showing her bones by pining over a scant horse she’s convinced is being starved by some local lads or her attempts to break out of her concrete jungle though entering a dance competition, she nails every moment. As contrived as it sounds, the getting out, the escape to greener pastures, however over done in more self aware, Hollywood attempts, is at it’s absolute best in Fish Tank.
Please don’t be fooled… this isn’t Billy Elliot.