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Andrea Arnold seemed to emerge out of nowhere with Red Road (2006), her revelatory, shrewdly observed debut feature about voyeurism and sexual revenge. That film won Arnold multiple awards, and she had already earned an Oscar for her short Wasp (2003), echoes of which can be found in both Red Road and her third feature, Fish Tank (2009): all three center on young women living in housing projects and facing sexually fraught situations. This may sound bleak, but there’s an energy to her films that’s anything but, thanks to her audacious heroines, who certainly don’t see themselves as victims. This is especially true of Fish Tank’s gutsy young protagonist, Mia.
It’s easy to pigeonhole Fish Tank as the latest entry in a very British tradition: the social-realist portrayal of people less fortunate than most of the intended audience. For many international viewers, the key reference will probably be Ken Loach’s Kes (1969), or almost any of his studies of deprivation among the underclass. But there is also a longstanding custom of such gritty drama in British television, which was indeed where many directors, like Loach, cut their teeth. “Plays,” as they were described, such as Up the Junction (a 1965 telefilm by Loach), Loach’s Cathy Come Home (1966), and Alan Clarke’s Scum (1977, remade for cinema in 1979), established a vernacular tradition in writing, acting, and location shooting that has since become a touchstone for contemporary social realism.
Within this tradition, there are two distinguishable strands: the disillusioned and the redemptive. But Arnold straddles the two, showing us just how bleak things can be while also giving her characters real presence. Her heroine in Fish Tank, Mia, aspires to dance, but we can see she isn’t a great dancer in the making, except in her own private world. Mia may be heading off to a brighter future at the film’s end, or she may just return to live on a council estate (as housing projects are called in the U.K.), falling into the slovenly, welfare-dependent lifestyle of her mother, or even being drawn into drugs and prostitution. Arnold seems less concerned with predicting which is more likely than with imagining a fifteen-year-old girl’s life today (rare enough in the boys’ club of cinema) or with providing a vivid snapshot of the urban margins that make up much of contemporary Britain. It was another shrewd anatomist of British society, Stephen Frears, responsible for such key films as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Dirty Pretty Things (2002), who shared his enthusiasm for Fish Tank with me, saying that he had the sense of its showing “what we need to know,” in the same way that Kes had once done for his and my generation. The Full Monty (1997) and Billy Elliot (2000) offered feel-good takes on what the Conservative leader David Cameron likes to call “broken Britain,” where “talent” of the kind displayed on TV shows can bring fame and fortune—Fish Tank has no such reassuring message. But neither does it wallow in deprivation.
Arnold’s outlook is distinctive, and surprisingly nuanced for British realism. Her rather unusual background certainly helps to explain the tremendous empathy she shows for Fish Tank’s young people, whose behavior may be aggressive and whose language foul, but who are also portrayed as vulnerable, typically banded together in groups and noticeably less confident on their own. Arnold worked as a performer and presenter on youth-oriented television for much of the 1980s and ’90s (including acting as a roller-skating character on a Saturday morning teen soap). But even more relevant is her own family experience as the oldest of four children growing up in a council house in Dartford, Kent, on the opposite side of the Thames Estuary from where Fish Tank is set. Although there is no suggestion of autobiography in the film, Arnold clearly knows firsthand the semiurban desolation that rings London, and the middle-class prejudice often directed at those who speak with what’s known as an Estuary accent. Historically, Essex and Kent received the former inhabitants of London’s East End and Docklands when those slums began to be cleared after World War II. The Mardyke Estate, where much of the film was shot, is typical of such projects. Built in the 1960s to house workers at Ford’s vast auto plant in Dagenham, it offered former Londoners new flats, arranged in tower blocks. Distantly inspired by the utopian schemes of modernist architects and planners, these developments soon proved disastrous. The new tenants, uprooted from their former, traditional communities, were disoriented and isolated. The walkways and elevators soon became threatening, and drug dealers began to invade the estates, adding their own criminal networks to a culture already steeped in alcohol abuse and petty crime. (Stanley Kubrick had only to look to the Thamesmead Estate in South London for the future dystopia of 1971’s A Clockwork Orange.)
All this, however, is merely the setting for Arnold’s drama about a fifteen-year-old girl poised between childhood and womanhood. And unlike some of her peers in British social realism, who are more concerned with anatomizing the society that oppresses their characters, she is unequivocally on the side of Mia. We meet her in the first image of the film, head down and alone in the private world of an empty apartment that has become her bolt-hole and personal dance studio. From here, she looks out over the life of the estate—an image that may fleetingly recall the doctor in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death (1946), as he surveys his mundane village “kingdom” through a camera obscura. But we’re not granted access to Mia’s thoughts, except through her actions. Here, she dances, and drinks cider when she can get it through an older accomplice. She will briefly dream of dance as a means of escape, although her first steps lead to ignominy, when she realizes that an “audition” is for only dancers likely to titillate jaded drinkers.
Another dream, or desire, emerges when she impulsively tries to steal a horse that’s tethered on a nearby wasteland. A horse in such circumstances in England could signal only the presence of gypsies, or “tinkers,” always viewed with suspicion and often the object of police and community harassment. Mia instinctively tries to free this firmly chained animal (which for her has an immediate, almost sensual appeal), and even returns with tools to try again. Her desire is palpable, even if utterly impractical. It offers an unexpected window into her otherwise well-concealed soul—and for aficionados of British cinema, it may evoke the startling, surreal image of a white horse glimpsed in the blazing streets of wartime London in Humphrey Jennings’s Fires Were Started (1943).
Mia’s desire to free the flea-bitten horse leads her to someone who may prove to be a soul mate: one of the caravan dwellers, Billy, whose status is never spelled out but with whom she bonds because he offers her complicity in underage drinking and an unthreatening companionship. What is most striking about almost all the other characters is their overt sexualization—in contrast with Mia, habitually wearing plain, unrevealing clothes. Even her little sister, eight-year-old Tyler, is first seen sunbathing in a bikini top, and her swearing is already lewder than Mia’s. The atmosphere in the apartment they share with their mother, Joanne, decorated in pink and green, with an incongruous Palm Beach mural, has a constant undercurrent of sensuality. Joanne seems to drift from one liaison to another, drinking and smoking constantly, and keeping a jealous eye on her older daughter’s emerging sexuality.
Arnold’s first-person perspective, brilliantly realized by director of photography Robbie Ryan, ensures that we see the world almost exclusively through Mia’s eyes, whether in subjective point-of-view shots or in tableaux that express her aggressive-defensive attitude. She is quick to spy new threats and opportunities through doorways and windows. A visual motif is a dark, silhouetted frame surrounding Mia’s field of vision as she warily looks out at the world, her aggression hiding the uncertainty she clearly feels about her sexual awakening. And then her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (played by the brilliant Irish actor Michael Fassbender, fresh off his breakthrough in Steve McQueen’s Hunger), enters the picture, instigating a dangerous attraction, which moves from fantasy to sobering reality. Arnold carefully choreographs the interplay between Mia and Connor as a delicate web of exchanged looks, punctuated by unexpectedly boisterous horseplay, while at the same time suggesting an innocent family intimacy Mia has never known.
Fish Tank’s authenticity may owe much to Arnold’s own experiences, but it undoubtedly stems almost as much from her finding Katie Jarvis, an untrained seventeen-year-old discovered having an argument with her boyfriend on a station platform, and coaching her through a demanding central role. Just as Loach’s Kes depended totally on the tough vulnerability of the young David Bradley as Billy, so Jarvis brings to Mia a complete believability. Whether she is asserting her status among peers, tentatively trying out makeup in her mother’s bedroom, or impulsively wreaking revenge for Connor’s betrayal—in a scene both frightening and exhilarating that takes us to the coastal edge of the Thames Estuary—Jarvis is entirely convincing. And never more so than when she decides she must leave the family nest and seize her chance at happiness. Here, Arnold’s unerring ear for the soundtrack of her characters’ lives (which has already given us Connor’s cherished “California Dreamin’,” creating an immediate bond between him and Mia) produces a triumphant, wordless scene, as Mia and Joanne launch into an impromptu dance routine, set to Nas’s pounding “Life’s a Bitch.”
Arnold has joked that Loach must be tired of hearing her compared to him, and indeed, it would be hard to set the evidence of such a small body of work against the five decades of Loach’s probing analyses of mainly working-class experience in Britain. Any filmmakers working in this genre are likely to find themselves taken as spokespeople for the “condition of England”—a state first identified as “ominous” and “strange” by the historian and social critic Thomas Carlyle as long ago as the 1840s. Alert viewers will notice several Union Jack flags forming part of the decor of Mia’s life—one on a tea mug, the other on a CD entitled An England Story, which is a compilation of Caribbean-influenced MC dance music. They may wonder if Arnold is indeed offering an anatomy of “broken Britain,” like her contemporaries Shane Meadows, in his dissection of the skinhead subculture in This Is England (2006), and Antonia Bird, in Safe (1993), her devastating exposé of life on the streets. But I’m persuaded that, like the Dardenne brothers of Rosetta (1999) and the Agnès Varda of Vagabond (1985), she is more concerned with telling the story of one girl’s struggle to escape the stereotyped expectations that trap working-class youngsters. The threat of being sent to a “pupil referral unit,” for children already excluded from school, hangs over Mia, as her mother reminds her. Yet Arnold wants her to escape, without necessarily predicting that she will succeed. Fish Tank is surely about hope—about, in Albert Finney’s immortal line from the founding film of postwar British social realism, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), not letting “the bastards grind you down.” But also, as she drives off with Billy, it’s about dreaming of a better tomorrow.
Ian Christie is a professor of film and media history at Birkbeck College, University of London, and a fellow of the British Academy. He has written and edited many books on Russian, British, and American cinema, including Arrows of Desire: The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Film Factory (coedited with Richard Taylor), and Scorsese on Scorsese (coedited with David Thompson).