Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Fish Tank

Fish Tank centers around 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) who lives with her slatternly mom (Kierston Wareing) and little sister (Rebecca Griffiths, smart-mouthed and very funny) on a tower block council estate in Essex, east of London. Even without preconceptions, it’s clear from the start that this is a grotty place of constant swearing and antagonism, knee-jerk resorts to violence and cheap booze (even their dog’s named after a beer). Mia’s one heartfelt pastime is to dance to R&B and one morning she finds herself being watched in the kitchen by handsome topless Irishman Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mom’s new beau. As he puts it, Mia’s got a mouth on her and as he sticks around looking like a potential Dad-Charming, their relationship develops erratically but with a queasy sexual charge.

At the same time, Mia develops a tentative relationship with a local pikey who necks cough mixture and nicks car parts from the junk yard. All the while, she’s under the threat of remand school, but all she wants to do is dance. The climax is precipitated by a foolish decision in which Mia is coerced, knowing no better, which results in a very stupid and nearly fatal outcome, but by the end she’s gained enough sense of self to make a wise decision, and her final action augurs escape and hope.

Arnold has been at pains to describe the movie as one about people, rather than “lower-class people” and the film’s moral turpitude lies not in the estate but in a row of wannabe-bourgeois new homes in a neighbouring suburb. It might be tempting to think of the estate as the fish tank, where people mill around between the imprisoning tower blocks, trapped forever. An interpretive trap is even laid on the family’s river outing when Connor states that “no-one comes here and the fish are stupid”. But in fact, the fish tank is the long window of the empty upstairs apartment in which Mia privately practices her dancing, a fish tank of the self, through which she can see the vast expanse of London and a future of infinite possibility.

This is only emphasized by the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is a comforting formal choice (is it easier to relate to the underclass if they look like they’re on TV?) but in some ways a shame given that aside from impeccable acting and direction, the photography by Red Road’s Robbie Ryan is terrific: lighting, angles and composition make a traditionally drab existence quite beautiful without meretricious prettify, and some stylistic flourishes – close-ups, focus blurring – work perfectly as conduits of emotion for the characters. Despite the largely successful attempt to depart from a typical drab council estate movie mode there is necessarily an air of inevitability to these lives which comes more from received notions than actual social circumstances, and certain points nudge heavy-handedness (the horse Mia tries to rescue would have to be white, wouldn’t it?) But it’s Katie Jarvis’s film, a first-timer like most of the cast, found on a railway station. She’s remarkable, perfectly self-assured both when center-stage but also when gazing pubescently at Connor, or caught in the morning light, fresh-faced despite the pimples, in strawberry pajama bottoms, as the vulnerable child she still partly is.

d/sc Andrea Arnold p Kees Kasander, Nick Laws ph Robbie Ryan ed Nicolas Chaudeurge pd Helen Scott cast Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway
(2009, UK/Neth, 123m)
posted by tom newth at

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