By Richard von Busack
While Fish Tank is a film about the kind of people who name their dog after a brand of lager, there isn’t an ounce of patronization in it. Director Andrea Arnold’s film is the furthest thing from a slumming expedition, although the material is lurid: the illegal romance between an adult and a 15-year-old girl named Mia (Katie Jarvis) living in a housing estate on the east coast of England.
Essex is a place that Londoners make jokes about—or celebrate in slangy form, as in Ian Dury’s song “Billericay Dickie.”
According to the BBC, the Mardyke Estate—a set of concrete towers surrounded by postindustrial wasteland—is the most notorious housing development in a 43-square-mile area. Arnold (Red Road) and her photographer, Robbie Ryan, are strangely captivated by the place. The landscapes are bathed in Flemish sea light; titanic rain clouds march overhead. In repeated spins, Bobby Womack’s version of “California Dreamin’” arrives in the same way the original version of the song did in Chungking Express: it adds forlorn romance and lyricism to the views.
Mia is a small, thin, feral girl at odds with everyone. She’s a dropout and a delinquent, and the special-ed school gates are gaping wide for her. At home, her lounging mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), barely tolerates her; Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), her little sister, isn’t a fan either. Mia is always ready to have it out with the pack of teenage girls who roam the housing project’s corridor. Mia’s therapy for the stress is dancing: practicing until she’s breathless in her hideout, the living room of an abandoned flat in this concrete tower.
Her mother has just made a real find: Connor (Michael Fassbender), a man with a job. We know this because Mia discovers a pay stub when she helps herself to a fiver out of his wallet. He can do things; he knows how to snatch fish out of a pond with his bare hands. And the bedroom action between Joanne and him is good—we can hear that through the thin walls and see it at the orgiastic party Joanne hosts. Fassbender, of Inglourious Basterds and Hunger, is making fast progress to A-list leading-man status.
Fassbender is extremely good-looking with his shirt off, and he has a soft accent that almost sounds like a New Yorker’s (I doubt if he’ll need any vocal coaching to do American films). All this is gossip compared to what he really has: a serious actor’s humor and humanity. He’s taking a risk, too, playing a character many would be ready to condemn as a molester.
But bravery is what marks Arnold, too. Only a female director would know how to chart the mixed emotions behind such a flirtation, or know how to make the sexual tension erotic instead of creepy, or to be able to make it clear what a young girl like Mia might think she wanted, while really not knowing what she might get. Weirdly, because of the film’s finale, critics have been likening it to An Education—a much more distanced and refined piece of work. To use a metaphor from Fish Tank, the difference between these two movies is like the difference between a live gasping fish and a box of Mrs. Paul’s.
The Lolita-like shot of Connor tending Mia’s wounded, unwashed foot reminds us what made that novel work as a story of power gone haywire, out of the usual channel between father-figure and daughter. The lack of preaching in Fish Tank really makes it noteworthy. When Mia takes her revenge, she becomes a brutal child acting out, but the justice of what she’s doing is apparent.
Arnold is a fiendishly persuasive director, and she ensures that you see things from Mia’s view. In the last third, when Mia starts to make a run for it, we can see past Essex’s junkyards and tired-looking houses into something wild. This is especially true at the climax at the Thames estuary, where the land ends as abruptly as if it had been chewed away by a steam shovel. This is where a little film gets big: the scene is like the end of a Romantic novel when the elements are brought in to witness the emotional states of the characters on a windy fen or by churning waters.
Katie Jarvis was a nonprofessional picked off a railway platform by Arnold, and she is chillingly good. It also helps that Jarvis isn’t a trained dancer. Although the arts can be a pathway out of the slums for kids, films rarely deal with those who have artsy dreams and loads of energy but only a bit of talent. It comforts the mass audience to believe that sheet talent will always have its way. We can see the girls of Mardyke busting their moves; some of them are even better at it than Mia. One girl practices that walking-up-the-wall move that Donald O’Connor did in Singin’ in the Rain. Arnold stops to watch some teens in a hallway doing their music-video dances: harem girls in search of a pasha, one with a navel jewel lolling out of her plump belly like a tongue.
There’s nothing delicate in this world: the concrete, the highways encircling the project, the TV spilling nonstop bilge. Mia’s mother is as negligent as an animal, and yet she’s a real presence, too: she’s true to her own nature. What amazes me most about Fish Tank, finally, is its raw hedonism. It’s rare that a director who has such a sure eye and ear and such sensitivity can understand the bliss of a hard party.