Tuesday, August 11, 2009

MIFF 2009 Review: Fish Tank

Fish Tank
Dir. Andrea Arnold
Year: 2009
Aus Rating: N/A
Running Time: 130mins

With just two feature films, British filmmaker Andrea Arnold has already solidified herself as one of cinemas most vital and enthralling directors. Having already been incredibly impressed by her debut feature, the urban horror film Red Road, and now even more so by her followup, Fish Tank, Arnold is a rare case of being able to see a director become a great right in front of our very eyes.

Fish Tank stars newcomer Katie Jarvis - who truly is every bit as good as you have probably heard - as Mia, a 15-year-old who has flunked out of school and spends her days abusing the other girls who live near her community housing block, as well as hip-hop dancing in a vacant flat and roaming the neighbourhood looking for ways to waste time. She lives with her mother (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister who is going down the exact same path. Into their lives comes mum's new boyfriend played by Michael Fassbender, a man that allows Mia to experience something other than a mother who doesn't appear to want her and a world that has already proved indifferent towards her.


Arnold's ability to portray urban decay is not that impressive in itself, but it's more what she does with it that has made me sit up and take notice. It would be easy for Arnold to have merely indulged in lower class miserabilism by inflicting pain on these unfortunate human beings, but instead she strives to find hope for Mia. Scenes showing the young girl dancing may initially feel like a cheap way on endearing her to viewers - "Look at that girl dance! Maybe she's lovely after all." - but it ends up providing but a window into her world, a world where hip-hop music is the language of the day and dancing does everything from cleansing the soul to expressing one's desire to be with a boy.

Fish Tank is filled with moments that provide the viewer with a strong image of the world that these characters fill. I thought it was quite humourous seeing Mia and her sister watch TV while drinking and smoking in a room painted pink and with horsey stickers on the banister. As Mia, Jarvis is truly exceptional. Given Jarvis' back story - she was seen by a casting director at a train station having a row with her boyfriend - it may not sound all that hard to act out scenes in which she exchanges insults with her sister like "cuntface" and "fuckface", but the longer the film goes, the easier it becomes to see the sadness lurking beneath and the desperation and power that Jarvis has enforced on her character.


Andrea Arnold makes movies about British lower class woe that are actually worth telling. They are unlike any other and for this I am grateful. So many clearly talented directors have become misguided and think they must use their talent to tell harsh and ugly tales. Another director may have wanted Mia to become depressed and a strung out drunk like her mother, but I don't think Arnold does. She could have easily made Mia miserable and made her life, and our viewing experience, a big joke, but she doesn't. The final scenes, I think, are testament to this. When Arnold could have easily gone for one last humiliation - something a lesser director would have done under the guise of "telling it like it is!" - she pulls Mia out of it and instead gives her reason to go down another path.

Fish Tank is an incredibly important film and one that has continued to stir through my mind in the days since. It may be filmed in the traditional 4:3 ratio of television, but it is truly cinematic and it is a brilliant, wonderful movie. A-, threatening to grow to an A

3 comments:

Guy said...

Yes, yes and yes again. It breaks my heart that pretty much everyone I recommend this to isn't going to bother seeing it because they think it's just another squalid "council estate movie." I have a horrible feeling the Brits are going to shrug this one off.

As for your A-/A wavering, I'm really starting to think the 3.5 stars I gave it at InContention was too cautious.

Paul Martin said...

Well Guy, I do think it's just another "council estate movie". While Arnold may give her character hope (something Loach also does, so there's nothing new or different in that), she makes sure we realise at the start what an arrogant little bitch she is. She puts down the other girls, head butts another and generally stirs up shit with whoever she comes across.

That her little sister is foul-mouthed and calls her sister a cunt is amusing but it wears thin after a while. For the life of me, I can't differentiate this from any other miserable British social-realist film and simply can't see the point.

The way the story turns towards the end extends the story more than necessary, turning it into something else and, for me, overstays its welcome.

The film is competently made and the characters are OK but I could have walked out at any time - I simply couldn't see any point to it at all. OK, Arnold channels Loach, but even Loach is over Loach and is now doing period pieces and comedies (with mixed results).

I'd give Fish Tank 3 stars.

Anonymous said...

Excellent film by Andrea Arnold, with a superb mix of eastablished stars,Michael Fassbender(Hunger)Kirsten Wareing(The Take)Harry Treadaway(City of Ember)and the discovery of totally raw talent in Katie Jarvis(brilliant)Rebbecca Griffiths(very comical)and Charlotte Collins(not affraid to front Jarvis),and great head butt scene. These newly discovered Essex girls will hopefully go far. Fish Tank tells like it is,with camera work and sound to make you feel its about you. Hope this little fish makes a big splash over the pond now it appears to have U.S. distribution, good luck for Toronto Film Festival.