Sunday, 9 May 2010

Fish Tank (2009)

Country: UK

At the moment the political landscape of Britain is marked by uncertainty and ambiguity. Last week the citizens of this fair isle voted in increased numbers and the result was a lack of majority for any of the three main parties. The new incumbent in Downing Street is almost certain to be David Cameron, once he and his party can find some consensus with the Liberal Democrats. Cameron has been criticised as being a figure lacking substance, at his centre an artificiality constructed through sound bytes. One of his phrases which kept recurring to me whilst I watched Fish Tank was the notion of a ‘broken Britain’. Cameron has pledged to repair something that his opposition claims isn’t broken at all. But Andrea Arnolds searing examination of life on a grim and featureless council estate would suggest that Cameron has much work to do to fulfil his claim.

The film follows Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis) has she comes to terms with both the frustrations of her age and developing sexuality, and the restrictive claustrophobic environment she finds herself in. The title of the film is an obvious metaphor for her situation, and her response to this is anger, aggression, alcohol consumption, but also escape into the realm of dance - a redeeming territory in which Mia is at peace with the world around her. Like everything in this film reality is soon on hand to shatter the good things though, her dancing is tainted when an advert for dancers turns out to be an audition for strip club performers. Mia is friendless and fatherless, without the supportive clutch of a school environment and the sense of belonging to a peer group. Despite her prickly exterior (this includes head butting a neighbouring girl and a truly foul mouth) this fifteen year old just wants a sense of acceptance and belonging. Instead she finds herself disenfranchised, but without the means to break free from the fish tank she finds herself stuck in.

To make matters even more complicated her sluttish mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) who dismisses her daughter as a cunt in an early scene has hooked up with enigmatic Irishman Connor (Michael Fassbender). Like all the characters in this film Connor isn’t what he seems. Initially at least he is warm hearted and enthusiastically joins this broken family, but it turns out he is taking advantage of the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of two females craving different things. It is a heartbreaking but predictable moment when we discover after he has had sex with the underage Mia that he lives on a nice estate and has a family. There is a suggestion of class exploitation here, but the film doesn’t dwell on it excessively. Events afterward almost spiral into tragedy, but Mia realises that her chances of escape would truly be destroyed should she pursue her vengeance further.

This is a different brand of social realism to that usually expressed by British filmmakers. For a start it focuses quite consistently on an individual, and chooses not to comment on the environment, instead focusing on the psychological vulnerabilities of the characters. This is a refreshing position that Arnold takes and the result of this is a greater alliance with traditions of European art cinema. The film doesn’t linger on grimness, the council estate and its surroundings is shot in a matter of fact manner, and no formal techniques are used to make it any worse than it is. In fact on occasion the film shows beauty in the most unlikely of places. Arnold seems to be well aware that in past examples of socially committed British cinema the spaces and locations function as characters in themselves, instead Fish Tank is resolute in its attention to human characters. The symbolism of a tethered horse which Mia tries to set free is a bit of a clanger in its obviousness, as is the news that the horse has been put down because of old age - in this case 16, the age Mia is about to become. But these are trifling criticisms. A measure of the outlook of this type of film is usually signified by closure. In this case Mia ends the film driving away to a new life in Cardiff, but her departure scene with her family is strange and unsettling and is in no way upbeat or positive. There is the lingering sensation that Mia is merely running from a life that will drag her back, most likely through the possibility of teen pregnancy and repeating the cycle that her mother finds herself in. This is a challenging and important film, and at times genuinely upsetting, and a prescient statement which seems to confirm Cameron’s conception of the deprivation in inner city and urban environments in the United Kingdom.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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