First Night: Fish Tank

A kitchen sink drama with a shot at the Palme D'Or
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The Independent Culture

British director Andrea Arnold puts herself in the frame for the Palme D'Or with this hard-hitting sophomore effort. Like her debut film Red Road, which played in competition at Cannes in 2006, Fish Tank is a kitchen sink drama with themes of alienation and sexual repression explored by a picaresque female protagonist.

Seventeen-year-old newcomer Katie Jarvis beguiles. She plays foul-mouthed troublemaker Mia, 15, and the camera follows her like a bee to honey as she marches through rough Essex, arguing and fighting. At the start it's all rather reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers' excellent 1999 Palme D'Or winner Rosetta – a determined, troubled teenager stopping at nothing to make a mark in life.

Attention is soon focused on Mia's difficult home life and, most pertinently, her relationship with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), the hard-nosed narcissistic type who frequents tales of working-class family woe. She is first seen calling her daughter "a bitch" before bringing home a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Friendly and amusing, he sets the teenager's pulse racing and the tension between them makes uncomfortable viewing.

Arnold toys with the audience when Connor puts Mia to bed, and again with Mia's increasingly frequent visits to his workplace. It is inevitable that they will sleep with each other, but as important as this crime is Joanne's failure to notice her daughter's sexual awakening. Arnold poses the question: what hope can we have for Mia, when she lives as if in a fish tank and possible escapes are closed off to her?

Mia sees her way out of her shackles through dancing. Whenever the harsh drama gets too heavy, Arnold cuts to Mia practicing her moves, or demonstrating her prowess to Connor – Bollywood-esque use of music to relieve tension.

Of particular note is Robbie Ryan's excellent camera work. Even empty rooms in council houses look interesting. He saves his best work for landscape shots; whether filming a river, street scenes or the imposing sky, he captures Mia's mood.

When Mia finally cottons on to the truth about Connor it leads to an intriguing, edge-of-your-seat denouement as she tracks him down in Tilbury.