Anyone familiar with Andrea Arnold’s first-rate feature debut Red Road (2006) will be well aware of her ability to generate compelling drama from a seemingly modest scenario. Interweaving a spell of ghosts from the past with a gripping voyeuristic compulsion, Red Road turned the dank back streets of Glasgow into something sinister and perverse. In her follow-up, Fish Tank (2009), the late-blooming Arnold returned to England armed with an insightful, uncompromising original screenplay of her own.
Set in the heart of a low-income neighbourhood of Essex housing estates, Fish Tank filters life through the eyes of sullen, moody 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her indifferent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and a smart-ass young sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), who she’s constantly feuding with.
Mia is like a boxer awaiting her turn in the ring: full of pent-up aggression, being slowly suffocated by the stagnation and poverty of her joyless life. Her only avenue of expression comes through the slowly evolving hip-hop dance routines she works on in the seclusion of an abandoned flat.
When her mother’s latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), enters the frame, the household’s dynamic subtly shifts. Though she often displays over-compensatory aggression towards Connor, Mia finds herself intrigued by this overtly masculine figure, the kind of mature-bodied male she’s been oblivious to until now. A vaguely sexual yearning gradually comes to a head and with it the potential for dangerous consequences.
Arnold’s film is an expressive, powerful example of the British social realism most commonly associated with the films of Ken Loach or Mike Leigh. Fish Tank is deliberately toned down in visual terms, though as became evident in Red Road, Arnold has an uncanny knack for eyeing concise, hushed moments that reflect an evocative sensation of poetry in slow motion.
Here, Fassbender was already exhibiting the indefinable qualities that would fast-track him towards the allure of even meatier roles though at the cost, naturally, of integration into projects engineered more for the masses than the art house. His immersive, jaw-dropping portrayal of Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) may still be regarded as a career highpoint years from now, but he has always provided a magnetic impression when on screen and Fish Tank was but another indicator of his gifts.
The rawness of non-actor Jarvis – plucked from real life by Arnold – makes for an interesting contrast. This is an accomplished, uninhibited debut performance by her, though she’s been gifted with a role in which she’s given plenty of room to manoeuvre by Arnold’s incisive, unsentimental screenplay.
Ultimately the film is more than a glimpse inside the fish bowl that holds the youth of a British underclass at arm’s length with little chance of escape. Forms of betrayal are experienced at every turn: in the apathy of a mother who is blithely neglectful of her maternal duties; in the moral betrayal of a man who exploits Mia’s underdeveloped sexual potential, pricking her into action in a way that places the safety of innocents in jeopardy. Even the dance audition she earns is merely a euphemism for further exploitation, choking off an additional avenue of escape.
Considering the grim circumstances and relentless grip of this decaying urban dwelling, how does Arnold achieve some kind of catharsis for Mia? Though there are times when Mia rubs us the wrong way, it’s hard to not be moved by the painful choices she’s ultimately forced to make. None of this is easy to watch but Fish Tank is grippingly alive with people, emotions and consequences that are all, too often, devastatingly real.