By Max Evans
Director Andrea Arnold
The wreckage of “broken Britain” can be seen in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank, which featured in last weekend’s line up at the Cornwall Film Festival.
Following up the director’s debut feature Red Road, the film has received all sorts of accolades including winning a coveted Jury Prize at the Cannes Film festival. It’s easy to see why.
The plot centres around Mia, a unremittingly boisterous but brittle teenager growing up on an sink estate in Essex, who insulates herself in the hopes of one day becoming a hip-hop dancer.
This is no gentle portrait. Nor is it simple: Mia is no Vicky Pollard, no caricature. In the opening sequence we see her headbutt a rival girl as the ugly, doused landscape gapes between the tower blocks, but quickly we are drawn into the slip-stream of this young woman as she ghosts the vacant council flats with her self-choreographed, cider fuelled routines, and her plots to free a withered horse from a gypsy encampment.
Mia, played to a perfect pitch by debutant Katie Jarvis, is at the margins of her own household where the stink of spilt booze emanates from every room. When her disinterested mother comes home with a handsome stranger called Connor (Michael Fassbender) Mia becomes stifled between her urges toward him as a father figure and the nascent nascent sexual desire he inspires in her.
In this sense Fish Tank takes on the classic structure of a rights-of-passage story but the motif of growing-up reaches beyond the central character, colouring a world that has failed to deliver on its parental responsibilities for every one. In Arnold’s film adults play at being children, as much as children play at being adults.
Mia’s younger sister smokes, drinks and spits worn expletives as though she were already weary of this world at the age of ten, whilst her mother strops around the flat, ordering the daughters out so that she can play in the living room with her friends.
Connor, who is played delicately by the fast growing phenomenon that is Michael Fassbender, confirms this idea more than any other character. He is charming and he engages with Mia with a breathy humility that she has never experienced in a man, and yet his immaturity won’t allow him to realise his desired identity as the adult in their relationship – the father.
As Mia and Connor inevitably give way in a strikingly presented sexual encounter we are left wondering who is to blame for this mess? The scenes between the two characters up to this point have been so sensual that we, as viewers, can hardly resist the attraction more than they can.
When later on in the film it becomes clear Connor has been concealing a double life, a life decidedly more middle class than Mia’s, we are left wondering if he is the villain of the piece. Yet the direction and the acting simply won’t allow for such easy distinctions.
The narrative rattles on into an uneasy pace as events seem to spin out of control. Mia behaviour takes her into dangerous territory. Frightening consequences loom. One character warns her, as if she were voicing the thoughts of the audience, “You’re starting to scare me know. ”
The visuals are stippled and scarred by clever cinematography, although it must be admitted that the film’s symbolism (including a balloon amidst the tenements) becomes a little tired in places. The plot too is a little slow in unfurling its quite foreseeable arc and yet there is a pleasure in having the physical tension eked out.
The people in Andrea Arnold’s locale – a wasteland of empty concrete underpasses and dual carriage ways – have been left to dissipate in tower blocks like decaying teeth, and yet they are people. They are redeemed by hope, however bootless it may appear.
It is obvious to draw parallels with the work of Ken Loach, or to a lesser extent Mike Leigh. The film is couched in the syntax of its forbears, but it is the dismal and puny hope that gives Fish Tank its own tragic identity.
There are no easy answers; no easy outcomes, but there is possibility. It is what allows Andrea Arnold’s characters to beam their humanity across all that beaten space, over those fences and motorway partitions that have kept them disconnected.
Andrea Arnold, originally a native of Dartford, was a guest of the Conrwall Film festival several years ago. Before the screening Lucy Freers, member of the festival steering group, paid tribute to this “inspiring young woman” and said that she had it on good authority that some of Fish Tank was based on the director’s personal experiences.
Britain was once the undisputed champion of social realist cinema and its lovely to see such an accomplished film showcasing the talent still to be found in this country. The Cornwall Film Festival has been passionate about promoting British Film makers and the organisers should be congratulated for bringing such a well realised English picture to an audience that would not otherwise get to see it on the big screen.