Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank grips you by its stunning visual poetry from the outset. It opens with the camera rushing helter-skelter behind 15 year old school dropout Mia’s frustrated and lonely dash across her emotional and physical landscape.
Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Fish Tank is a beautifully shot film. Dagenham’s cramped council estates, former industrial wastelands and the wild spaces around the Thames estuary frame Mia’s attempts to reach beyond the alienation and crushing horizons of a life in which the external social world appears to have nothing to say.
The performances are compelling. Untrained actor Katie Jarvis (Mia) holds attention, entirely convincing that graceful dance moves are her sole means of self-expression, despite being obviously not a dancer. Michael Fassbender plays Mia’s mother’s new boyfriend and turns in a rounded and humanistic performance winning sympathy, which is all the more shocking for overriding the repeated warnings of betrayal to come.
Fish Tank appears to say big things about society and relationships. It tries to give some kind of clue into the lives of working class women to the east of Barking where the closure of Ford and decades of Thatcherite neglect have destroyed lives. Use of camera angles and film techniques is central to this – Mia’s mother is frustratingly absent on screen, glimpsed partly and incompletely, to match her emotional absence and lack of presence in her daughter’s life. In both style and subject matter, it invites comparisons with Ken Loach.
Unfortunately, the imagination and depth of the cinema techniques, which provide constantly surprising views of Essex, clash brutally with an entirely one-sided and predictable view of working class life on big council estates. The final minutes aside, relationships were so stereotyped and the mother so horribly disinterested that my Essex-girl mate and I increasingly watched in a kind of fascinated disbelief that anyone could view this as reflective of a truth about society. Loach, who has made some stunningly beautiful films, once replied to an accusation of unimaginative camera style by saying that if you notice the camerawork, there is something wrong with the story. Having seen Arnold’s undeniably thought-provoking visual presentation, I think he is right.
Fish Tank is horribly off kilter – summed up in the way that Arnold describes Jarvis, who was asked to audition at Tilbury station, as “not having to act…just be herself”. As if Jarvis was not interpreting the emotions, alienation and events of this script. In Arnold’s view, just off Dagenham Heathway, and stretching way to the east, lies an exotic world of unrelenting brokenness: a world in which working class families cannot communicate, where men are absent or relate only through sex and where the only relief is to leave and never look back.
In failing to see the elements of contradiction, collectivity and culture in working life Arnold is able to portray the destruction of the post-Ford landscape but not the possibility of transformation – leaving melodrama that fails to satisfy and often insults.
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