Andrea Arnold’s fifth film, Fish Tank (2009), won the Jury Prize at Cannes and received almost exclusively rave reviews upon its initial release. Fish Tank utilizes contemporary cinematic tactics such as a hand held camera, natural lighting, and exclusively diegetic sound. Though these tactics recalled in precise detail the experiences of the audience’s reality when this style was first implemented in popular films during the late nineties, the style has lost some of its punch, and reads as yet another artificial “cinematic reality”. A decade from now, the visual style of Fish Tank will be dated, and the film will probably lose some of its power. But for the time being, Fish Tank will have to be contextualized in both the past and the present.
Fish Tank follows a long line of British dramas set in the tenement buildings of England’s urban sprawl. Like Mike Leigh’s Meantime (1983), Fish Tank’s narrative and its characters are unique to their particular region of England. This device was first popularized by Tony Richardson in the early sixties, and was designed to give a dramatic voice to the lower classes of England, enlightening the audience with matters on a county level. Of course, elements of all of these films, from This Sporting Life (1963) to Fish Tank are universal, thus providing a thematic gateway for the audience into the world of a specific city, village or town.
Fish Tank is set in Havering and the neighboring town of Tilbury. The principal lead of the film, Mia (Katie Jarvis) and her family reside in a tenement building positioned near a highway. Both locations are staples in the film. These locations do more than just provide a cultural context for the film’s characters. It is equally important, and made explicitly clear through the film’s locations that Mia’s family has a low income, that drugs and petty crime are staples in their community.
Within this semi-fictional world, Mia navigates confrontations with her single, alcoholic mother (Kierston Wareing), fights with her little sister (Rebecca Griffiths), practicing dance routines, and breaking the noses of the local girls. Mia has a chip on her shoulder, which one can easily assume is the result of her absent father. Though there is no explicit explanation for the absence of Mia’s father, the ramifications of his absence serve as the catalyst for Mia’s relationship with her mother’s boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender).
Connor does not represent a father figure to Mia. The attention and encouragement he provides merely fills a void in Mia’s life that a father would fill. The manner in which Connor gives fulfillment to Mia’s life is more romantic in nature. Neither Mia’s family nor her boyfriend provides any positive reassurance for Mia. Over the course of the film, Connor’s “big brother” behavior transforms into sexual behavior, and he uses his position with Mia to seduce her when her mother passes out drunk.
The relationship between Mia and Connor is hardly original or unique in concept. What makes the relationship fresh is how natural the performances are, how the film allows the characters to develop and unfold at a leisurely pace. From Connor’s introduction, it is clear that he will make sexual advances toward Mia, but Fish Tank prolongs its inevitable conclusion, building the tension vigorously. Their relationship is given added dimension during the film’s climax in which Mia discovers Connor has a secret family, with a daughter of his own. After breaking into Connor’s house, urinating on his floor, and sneaking out the back when he returns, Mia kidnaps his daughter.
The attempted kidnapping is not planned, but occurs spontaneously when Connor’s daughter rides her scooter passed Mia. Mia lures the little girl away easily enough, but controlling the little girl as they traverse a field proves difficult. Mia’s incessant cursing and Connor’s daughter’s kicking and screaming make the scene darkly comedic. Neither one is effective in her role, and both behave equally terrified of the situation. However, Mia’s nerves give out, and she knocks Connor’s daughter into a reservoir. This close brush with death prompts Mia to show compassion for the girl, whom she then returns home.
The scenes of Mia’s attempted kidnapping are the scenes in which Mia transforms and is able to overcome her own self-centered agenda. Until Mia seeks out revenge on Connor, she only ever acts in her best interest, regardless of the various ramifications her actions have. To further indicate Mia’s transformation, Andrea Arnold has Mia leave her dance audition before she even gets started. The audition had been Connor’s idea, that he encouraged and even inspired Mia’s music choice for. That Mia is able to walk away signifies that she is able to back off the track on which, until that moment, Mia’s life seemed set. Instead of becoming a stripper or exotic dancer, Mia opts to travel to Wales with her boyfriend. Both decisions on Mia’s part represent her escape from the insular world of her family and tenement life.
Mia’s trajectory as a character, before and after she has intercourse with Connor, is explicably tied to Connor. What Connor does and says directs Mia’s life early in the film. After he seduces Mia, it is his misdeeds that prompt the positive growth in Mia, thus making him both a negative and a positive influence upon Mia. If Connor hadn’t seduced Mia, not only would there have been no conflict in Fish Tank, but also Mia would never reject her job as a stripper or escape from her mother’s abuse.
Despite the fact that Mia’s self discovery is tied to sexual abuse is not particularly original, its execution and its alignment with earlier narrative threads give it a refreshing vitality. That is the beauty of Fish Tank, that it is able to transcend cliché and formula with its emphasis on the work of the film’s performers. Of all the films released in the passed five years, the best ones are always those that put all the emphasis on the film’s characters. By doing so, they can disguise even the most formulaic scenarios with a believable naturalism and nuance. Of course, it would be best if the cinema could evolve beyond its dependence upon narrative formula, but I think films like Fish Tank are a sign that filmmakers will eventually get there.