Directed by Andrea Arnold. Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths
by John Carvill
Andrea Arnold’s second full-length feature, ‘Fish Tank’, plunges the viewer into a Britain which is not so much ‘broken’ as ‘splintered’: although you could summarise the film’s tone and milieu by describing it as a sort of non-cartoonish version of ‘Shameless’, your overall lasting impression is bound to be positive, rather than despairing. That said, there’d be every reason to fear otherwise during two hours in which you could easily find yourself glued to the edge of your seat with fingernails clasped between your teeth.
Seventeen year old first-time actress Katie Jarvis plays fifteen year old Mia, feisty but fragile daughter of dissolute single Mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing), older sister to bulldog-tempered Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), and reluctant inhabitant of a council flat on an Essex estate. Mia’s character is quickly established in two brief early scenes. In the first – a gritty modern updating of Katherine Hepburn’s ‘window pinging’ scene from ‘Bringing up Baby’ – she tells her friend’s father, who has come to the window to angrily request that Mia stop throwing stones though it, to pass on a message to his daughter for her: “Tell her her Old Man is a cunt!”; in the second, she gratuitously headbutts another teenage girl whose sub-Spice Girls dance routines she disdains.
It’s an environment in which jobs are rare while pre-teen binge drinking is a nightly ritual. Profanity prevails, home comforts are few and far between, and tenderness is in short supply until the arrival of Joanne’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a marginally more stable and emotionally available character. Mia has a passion (and talent) for street dance, which she practices alone in a derelict flat, fuelled by frequent pulls from a two-litre plastic bottle of budget cider. Encouraged by Connor, she responds to an advert requesting hopefuls to submit audition tapes showcasing their dancing skills. Meanwhile, Mia is romantically pursued by a member of a local traveller community, Billy (Harry Treadaway), whose advances she indulges whilst clearly hankering after someone more like Connor.
The performances are uniformly excellent, and Katie Jarvis more than deserves the accolades she has received; it is simply astonishing that anyone of her age could act this well in a debut role. The minute to minute experience of watching the film is an uneasily enjoyable one. The direction is fluid, the narrative never sags, there’s a satisfying mix of roughly five parts bitter to one part sweet, and the salty dialog is often very funny. But there’s a pervasive air of foreboding, gut-wrenching tension, and the dreadful feeling that something awful is about to happen now and then culminates in some awful thing actually happening.
The ending isn’t quite what you could call ‘happy’; instead, it could best be described as cautiously hopeful. This is a film that’s hard to watch, but will undoubtedely prove even harder to forget. You believe in, and care about these characters, and the resulting emotional involvement is a key component of the film’s success. Despite the almost ever-present humour, a strong emotional stomach is required. But the sense of hopefulness and potential redemption the viewer is left with, spreads out from the protagonist(s) to encompass the community the film depicts, and – despite the current government’s plans to scrap the UK Film Council – this is a British film which holds out more hope for the future of British Film than any other of recent years.