pourquoi? parce que

Fish Tank *****

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Fish TankMia (the mesmerizing Katie Jarvis) is a typical 15 year-old girl who lives with her single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), little sister Tyler (the extraordinarily authentic Rebecca Griffiths) and their innocuous dog, Tennents. These girls, to borrow from Peter Bradshaw, “have learned from their mother mannerisms of pre-emptive scorn and rage to cover up perennially hurt feelings”. But Mia has dreams, fulfillable desires which afford her an optimism that shines out of this bleak suburban London landscape. She dreams of freeing a beautiful, gaunt mare chained to breeze-block by her owners, two intimidating and obnoxious young men and their more benign brother; of escaping her body, her emotions and her life through modern dance, the compulsion through which she bares her soul; of intimacy, fatherly or sexual, to free deep untapped reserves of passion. Yet all measures to these ends are misdirected, falter or come to nought.

Fish Tank is an extraordinary, touching, melancholic film in which Andrea Arnold manages to execute some of the harder tropes of social-realism with a tone of honest optimism, yet without resorting to a hint of sentimentality or cliché. There is beautifully choreographed photography, playing heavily on stark contrasts (though I would contend that the vast openness of the outdoors, set against often claustrophobic interior, manifests just as threatened and crumbling a beauty as in the life and soul of Mia). The city is never-ending, as we follow over Mia’s shoulder along broken sidewalks, across flyovers, the towers always behind and cars in the foreground. The only real escape from the sprawl comes in the form of a trip to the countryside with mum’s boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender, whose tremendous performance appears so effortless as to become invisible).

Fish Tank2On this little adventure, we discover another symbol standing for Mia, to accompany that hollow horse. The girls attempt to sabotage their mother’s romantic afternoon by volunteering to join Joanne and Connor on a drive. He takes them to a pond where, the others reticent, he enlists Mia to help catch a fish. This is the eponymous fish tank. Connor fondles the creature into submission and takes it aground, before skewering it with a stick. The scene-stealing Tyler exclaims, “That’s well harsh!”. A relationship between Mia and Connor provides the narrative drive for the film, seething, simmering, and exploding without ever appearing transparent or predictable. Arnold’s phenomenal screenplay makes us complicit in what proves a complex and illicit affair, compelling such intimate relation to Mia’s desire. We want, as she wants, despite all knowledge of how destructive it might be.

As the central dream of Fish Tank, it necessarily has the most tragic potential. There are, nevertheless, other dreams to thwart: equally dramatic and deflating avenues for disappointment and pain. But somehow, through the beauty cinematographer Robbie Ryan reveals in landscapes, and which Arnold finds in the spirit of Mia, the sadness of Joanne, but most importantly, through Jarvis, the understated optimism of contentment with life in its inevitable disappointment shines through. Could there be no more apt denouement than a family dance to “Life’s a Bitch” by Nas?

Not only is this one of the most sincere and balanced depictions of the urban Britain young people grow up in today, and a powerful tale of thwarted love and betrayal, but also a pretty unique insight into the experience of female adolescence in time and place. I’m hardly surprised most punters quizzed at Cannes for a contest winner Gallicly intoned, “Fish Tank”.

Edit: Peter Bradshaw went on to revise his review – to powerful, if slightly prosaic, effect – for the release of Fish Tank across the UK this week. He also looks within the scene in which Connor catches a fish with Mia – and sees through the water with greater clarity than I could summon. It goes like this:

Without consciously realising it, Mia is hoping that Connor could be a father-figure, and both sisters are secretly thrilled when he takes them all out for a drive in the country, and shows them how he can catch a fish with his bare hands. While her mother and sister cringe on the riverbank, Mia wades out into the cold, slimy water to help him and Tyler squeaks: “Is it minging?” No, it is not minging. It is sensual and exciting, an exotic experience such as Mia has never known. And it marks the decisive point at which Connor and Mia’s relationship drifts past being that of a quasi-father and daughter.

I, too, have since revised my review, to less imposing effect. Still, despite judicious editing, it attains some elegance. See The Skinny for my capsule review. For an altogether different take on the film, check out Armond White at the NY Press.


Fish Tank, Dir. & Writ. Andrea Arnold, BBC Films, UK, 2009 // Originally published in June 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

10/09/2009 at 11:59

One Response

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  1. Hi JP. Nice review! I haven’t seen ‘Fish Tank’ yet, although I’ve read a lot of positive comment about it.

    For more on the history of non-professional actors in cinema, please see my latest post at

    All the best.



    11/09/2009 at 15:27

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