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 as we witness a determined, troubled teenager stopping at nothing to make a mark in life. The only major misstep is at the top of the story – Mia’s altercation with a girl gang is melodramatic and out of tone with the story’s social-realist tone. Indeed, it’s a dead-end soon dropped as a storyline when attention is focused on Mia’s difficult home life and, most pertinently, her relationship with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing).
Joanne is the type of hard-nosed narcissistic mother who frequently appears in 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, his arrival sets the teenager’s pulse racing and the tension between them makes for uncomfortable viewing. Director Arnold toys with the audience when Connor puts Mia to bed, and again with Mia’s increasingly frequent visits to his work place. It’s 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 music. It’s hard not to feel for Mia when she’s dancing. She wants to be a dancer and whenever the harsh drama gets too heavy, Arnold cuts to a scene of Mia practicing her moves, or demonstrating her prowess to Connor. These scenes’ surreal nature, especially against an urban backdrop, could have leapt straight from a Bollywood movie where music is used to relieve dramatic tension.
Of particular note is Robbie Ryan’s excellent camera work. Even empty rooms in council houses are made to look interesting. He saves his best work for landscape shots; whether filming a river, street scenes or the imposing sky, he seems to capture Mia’s mood. When she finally cottons on to the truth about Connor it leads to an intriguing, tense edge-of-your-seat denouement as she tracks him down in Tilbury.Reuse content