Fish Tank

Review by David Jenkins @daveyjenkins

Directed by

Andrea Arnold

Starring

Harry Treadaway Katie Jarvis Michael Fassbender

Anticipation.

Arnold’s previous, Red Road, proved she was a talent to watch.

Enjoyment.

Engrossing and brilliantly made British drama. You feel Arnold could never make a bad film.

In Retrospect.

Doesn’t quite place Arnold in the ‘masterpiece’ leagues, but certainly puts her in the top British filmmakers currently at work.

Lean, empathetic and dramatically credible portrait of desperation and desire on the cider-splashed streets of adolescence.

Consider for a moment the title of Andrea Arnold’s exhilarating second feature, Fish Tank. It comes loaded with the inference of restriction, of confinement, of repression, of outsiders looking down on a lesser species. It would have been a legitimate title for her previous film, Red Road, about a Glaswegian CCT worker monitoring the actions of a man she once knew.

Yet during the first half hour of this new film – an electric and volatile slice of Thames estuary realism – Arnold’s characters appear to be experiencing the contrary. Their boundaries are non-existent; they thrive on spontaneity; they do as they please; they live in the moment, for better and for worse.

The film is about Mia (Katie Jarvis), a firebrand, hoodie-sporting 15-year-old who, we’re initially led to believe, prefers to use her head to fight rather than to think with. She lives in a pokey domicile on a grim high-rise estate with potty-mouthed younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) and love-stricken mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), but spends most of her time in a deserted flat nearby where she privately teaches herself to dance.

Casting aside unnecessary exposition, it’s a testament to Arnold’s undoubted skill as a filmmaker that she is able to give us an intimate feel for these characters’ lives within the first three or four minutes of film. The perfectly chosen locations, the salty language and the terse interactions between characters all drip with detail and texture.

The equilibrium is tipped when strapping security guard Connor (Michael Fassbender) – the mysterious new love interest of Mia’s mother – arrives on the scene. This is where the title comes in, as the film is about the close co-habitation of the family under this new set-up, and perhaps more importantly, how the proximity turns the place into a hotbed of psychological unrest.

Any more detail about what actually occurs in the film would only impair its remarkable succession of genuinely disturbing and surprising developments, but it mostly concerns Conner’s seemingly benign efforts to draw Mia from her shell.

As was already hinted-at in Red Road, Arnold demonstrates an almost Hitchcockian ability to visualise encroaching danger and coiled emotion on screen. It’s this that pushes Fish Tank into an altogether higher bracket of filmmaking. Some scenes in the film are likely to be the most agonisingly tense you’ll see in the cinema this year, as Arnold, with the aid of DP Robbie Ryan, doesn’t so much film the action as assiduously tease out situations with the camera.

Credit should also go to her actors, who give Arnold their all. Fassbender has never been better. Newcomer Jarvis effortlessly carries the film.

But while Arnold’s technique is muscular for sure, her writing still needs some fine-tuning. A subplot involving a sort-of love affair with Harry Treadaway’s grimy traveller feels extraneous, and Mia’s strange desire to free his chained up horse is too pronounced a visual metaphor to sit next to the queasily curt realism of the film’s remainder. But these are easily forgiven flaws in what is a lean, empathetic and dramatically credible portrait of desperation and desire on the cider-splashed streets of adolescence.

Published 10 Sep 2009

Anticipation.

Arnold’s previous, Red Road, proved she was a talent to watch.

Enjoyment.

Engrossing and brilliantly made British drama. You feel Arnold could never make a bad film.

In Retrospect.

Doesn’t quite place Arnold in the ‘masterpiece’ leagues, but certainly puts her in the top British filmmakers currently at work.

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