(2009) director Andrea Arnold
Raved about in the press and compared to François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959) or the work of British film-maker Ken Loach, Fish Tank is a snatch of contemporary English gritty realism. Starring Katie Jarvis, previously a non-actor who was “discovered” on the train platform in Tilbury where the film is set, director Andrea Arnold’s film has that working class London area flavor, neither idealized nor vitrified, a balance of showing the lives of the poor in estate housing in England’s center.
Believe it or not, I’ve never seen a single Ken Loach film, so I don’t know how it compares with his work. But I am familiar with the English films and television shows that seem to have a more open eye to all strata of English life and depicting it through the social realism lens. I’ve actually always admired this aspect of British cinema and entertainment that there seems to be a better self-awareness or a broader self-awareness of the breadth of England’s society. But these types of films can be real downers too.
Fish Tank is neither pure downer nor pure upper. The life of 15 year old Mia (Jarvis) who lives in a housing estate with her mother and younger sister in significant poverty. Her mom is a lush, more a peer than an adult, who hooks up with hunk Michael Fassbender, one of the few people to show Mia some genuine attention. Fassbender is a hunk, and he’s charming too. Mia’s hopes for becoming a hip-hop dancer are somewhere between pathetic and pipe-dream, and while the worst things that happen to her don’t come close to how exploitatively bad as the could be, the ending is a mixture of hope and pessimism.
I have to say that I wasn’t as taken with Fish Tank as I was anticipating. It’s a good film and well worth seeing. Given some of the reviews that I’d read and the fact that it got a Criterion Collection release made me anticipate something perhaps more transcendent. Actually, what was weird was how the DVD was made full-screen rather than letter box, which seems like a weird choice. I read somewhere that the choice was perhaps to further the claustrophobia of Mia’s life or to make the film more “low-fi”, like an old VHS video. I have no idea. But it was unusual. Maybe there is some aspect of it being called “Fish Tank” in it, like looking in at a little, constrained world in which the poor creatures flit around fruitlessly, living but not living free, never with any chance of escape.