There’s only one fish in Fish Tank. It gets killed. There’s also a horse. But that goes too.
There’s even a little bit of hope for 15-year-old Mia (a brilliant Katie Jarvis), when friendly, hunky Connor (Michael Fassbender) starts making her single mum (Kierston Wareing) happy. But that gets snuffed out sharpish. The point? Good times are hard to hold onto in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road follow-up. Life’s a bitch and then you die...
Taking place on a Barking council estate, the title refers to the claustrophobia of growing up in a place where vulnerable but hard-nosed children seem destined to repeat the mistakes of their neglectful parents.
In depicting this gloomy setting, Arnold paints it as it is with teens swearing, boozing, smoking and screwing; the more punches thrown the more affecting the film becomes.
But what Arnold lacks in rose-tinted specs, she makes up for with a magnifying glass that homes in on details to bring Fish Tank to life, with dialogue so spiky that levity gets mixed into the sobriety. Hers is a Britain swamped in X Factor obsession where Mia practises dance routines for a way out. Everything is thought of. From the wallpaper in the family flat (palm trees) to the songs (‘California Dreamin’’), Arnold hints at a life outside the enclave. “I’d be safe and warm/If I was in LA.” Good luck.
Like Red Road this is raw, unfussy filmmaking, often unbearably tense with exceptional scenes conveying strong emotions characters would rather keep bottled up. Witness the neon-soaked family dance-off. Witness Fassbender and Jarvis doing what they shouldn’t. When the air is thick with insults, it can take moments of silence and action to say what’s on one’s mind.
Three years on from her debut, Arnold cements her place as a director of serious note. It will be interesting to see if she can change tack, maybe make a romcom, maybe not, but by creating the best British film of the year, she’s proven there’s real talent here. And it doesn’t look like that’s leaving anytime soon.
A powerful, poignant and beautiful film, Arnold crafts Brit realism at its best. The title? Every fish wants to swim in the ocean. It’s just not always possible.