It’s impossible to discuss British social-realist movies without looking to the works of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. Loach is probably best remembered for Kes, where Leigh has done Secrets & Lies and Naked. However this sub-genre of so-called “kitchen-sink” realism, which dissects often working class (or under-class) individuals in bleak scenarios, has had some other entries of interest over the years – from Nil by Mouth to Kidulthood, the latter of which is one of my favourite examples of contemporary social realism, a snapshot of urban teen life on a London Council Estate, complete with almost-incomprehensible f-bomb-laden dialogue, underage promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, drug taking and dealing, and petty crime. In fact Council Estates seem like the location of choice for many of these productions – teeming with rich life which often goes overlooked on celluloid.
It’s interesting to know that these Council Estates – the equivalent to Stateside Housing Projects – were borne out of London’s East End slums, cleared post-WWII, the inhabitants of which went on to populate these imposing tower blocks located across Essex and Kent which, whilst initially designed as modern new architecture, soon proved to be bottlenecks for drug dealing and petty crime. It’s interesting because within this environment – so rife with unemployment and under-education, filled with individuals who rely on alcohol and drugs just to get by in their battery-farm-like existence, and where crime is one of the few prospects on the horizon – sparks of hope exist, fuelled by a yearning to break out of this would-be prison. And where Loach and Leigh wallow in the mud, painting life as it is, in truly bleak, often disillusioned fashion, new social realist filmmakers like Andrea Arnold seek to focus instead on the spark within the dark, oppressive night.
“You need sortin’ out, you do.”
“So you keep sayin’. But you’re nothin’ to me, so why should I care what you think?”
Mia is an angry fifteen-year-old living on a council estate with her single mother, Joanne, and her precocious younger sister. She has few friends, finds it hard to get along with the teenagers in the area, and spends the majority of time escaping to a deserted flat where she drinks cheap cider and practices dancing to hip-hop. She has few dreams – freeing a horse from a gypsy camp is about as adventurous as it gets – and very little to hope for in her life, after having been kicked out of one too many school, and facing being sent to an ominous “pupil referral unit.” And the arrival of her mum’s new boyfriend, Connor, poses new problems and challenges, but also gives her new hopes. Already finding it difficult to traverse the path between childhood and womanhood, Mia finds herself attracted to Connor, both sexually, and as the father figure that she never had. Will she find a way to break free to make a brighter future for herself, or will she trapped in the same destructive cycle as her mother, falling into a welfare-dependent lifestyle within some dilapidated council estate?
Fish Tank is a fantastic snapshot into life within the semi-urban margins that ring London, peppered with colourful, largely abrasive, but always realistic characters; and centred upon a very human main protagonist through whose eyes we see the desolate world around her. It neither offers social commentary nor passes judgment on the various individuals that we encounter, merely painting things as they are – people as they are – whether disillusioned or still capable of being redeemed with that spark of hope. Whilst not always sympathetic, it is possible to still empathise with some of these characters, not least Mia, a prime example of a teenager whose outward behaviour may well be aggressive and defiant to the last; whose language may be consistently foul and driven by f-bombs; but who still has a palpable vulnerability to her, the seeming over-confidence merely a front for the personality within; still in its precarious formative years and capable of being derailed from the right path much more easily than you might think.
In fact, Andrea Arnold’s creation of the lead character of Mia represents one of the two most potent elements of this powerful drama, and her choice of actress for the role was simply perfect. Apparently she first noticed then seventeen-year-old Katie Jarvis because she was having a very vocal argument with her boyfriend on a train station platform (the station that would then become a location in the movie) and, despite having no acting training whatsoever, cast her in the lead role. It was a clever and calculated decision. Arnold’s own background was one of a council estate upbringing, one of a four children packed into a small flat, in one of the tower blocks on the other side of the Thames Estuary from where Fish Tank would be set, and whilst there is no admission of this being an autobiographical affair for her, she clearly infuses the movie with very personal moments that speak of insider knowledge. And, by finding a completely new canvass to work on in teenager Katie Jarvis – who obviously had her own personal experiences to bring to the fore – Arnold was able to mould a very fresh, almost unique imagining of a 15-year old girl’s life within this realm.
And it’s Jarvis’s astonishing performance that grounds the film and gives her character real presence. Even in her dancing – which is intentionally far from perfect – she brings forth the true nature of the character. She may not be a standout dancer, but that’s because she’s not dancing for an audience, she’s dancing for herself; she’s dancing to escape. Surprisingly Jarvis is not one of these teen performers who looks like they are trying to be old before their time, even despite the fact that she is marginally older than the character she’s playing here. She perfectly combines all the necessary ingredients of naivety, arrogance, stupidity, energy, drive, determination, childlike vulnerability and blossoming sexuality, to offer us one of the most breathtakingly authentic realisations of a teenage girl ever brought to the Big Screen.
“You’re fifteen years old!”
“What does it matter, if you like someone?”
Within Mia’s world we are introduced to Kierston Wareing as her unpleasant single mother, Joanne. Whether smoking or drinking until she passes out, you can tell even from the way she dresses that Joanne doesn’t want to be a ‘mother’, her jealous eye and bitter tongue always ready to cut Mia down whenever an opportunity arises. There’s no support here, no love, just the terse criticism of a twisted sister, without any of the elements you would expect from a maternal figure, and Wareing perfectly infuses her character with these traits, coming across as one of the least sympathetic – but also most believable personalities. I mean, who would blame her bitterness – she is, after all, one of those teenage pregnancy ‘victims’ herself.
Rebecca Griffiths plays the eight-year-old sister, whose foul mouth is even more shocking than Mia’s, a precocious little brat and an utter product of the environment that she has been ‘brought up’ in. And Michael Fassbender – perhaps the only recognisable actor from the cast list, who will play Magneto in the upcoming X-Men reboot – portrays the mother’s new boyfriend, Connor, whose motivations are hard to determine, and intentions are impossible to predict. Fassbender, who was fresh off his powerful performance in Hunger when he took this role, is not only the biggest name in the movie, he’s also the only one who comes close to being out of place. It’s only a minor slight against the film, and the narrative does – eventually – try to explain it somewhat, but really, he’s just too cool, charismatic, well-spoken and handsome to possibly work as a love interest for Joanne. One night stand? Sure. Even short-term commitment to both her and her two daughters? No way.
Still, the characters depicted in the movie are strikingly true to life, not just in dialogue and demeanour, but also in the very emotions that drive them. The director, Arnold, crafts a lead protagonist who may well be on the cusp of womanhood, may act like an adult – drink, disappear and headbutt her enemies like an adult – but she’s still got that child within, and it is always present, even if it is often smothered by an abrasive exterior shell. To this end Arnold chooses to often show her as the least sexual of the individuals within the drama – from her impliedly promiscuous mother to her crop-top wearing ‘mates’, to even her eight-year-old sister (who is first seen sunbathing in a bikini). In contrast, Jarvis’s Mia habitually wears a generic, grey tracksuit – never anything revealing, with no overt sexualisation. That’s not to say she’s unattractive, nor that she doesn’t do many things that would lead an outsider to believe that she’s a fully fledged adult in all but numbers, but it does leave room for you to be able to believe that she is still, essentially, a child, and she could still be taken advantage of as such.
Aside from Andrea Arnold’s casting of Katie Jarvis as her fantastic lead Mia, the second cleverest manoeuvre this young female writer/director pulled off was in crafting so many authentic personalities, with very real emotional journeys. She did this using a technique which I’m sure has been done before – but not very often – and that is to shoot the film chronologically, only providing her actors and actresses with the scripts for their respective scenes after the previous scenes had been shot. That way the performers would not know what would happen to their characters later in the film, allowing the emotions depicted in each scene to be extremely spontaneous – true to the moment, and thus true to life. When Jarvis is dancing alone in the abandoned flat, she’s dancing purely for herself: to escape. She’s not dancing because she knows somebody may take notice sometime later in the movie. Similarly when Connor interacts with Joanne’s kids at the beginning of the film, he genuinely comes across as being innocently playful and father-like – somebody who just gets along well with kids – whereas later you might want to go back and question his original motivations. It’s an excellent trick on the part of Arnold, because it allows the displayed emotions to change from scene to scene, with subtle gestures between the characters – looks, glances through half-closed eyes, and extra look that speaks so much more than the venomous foul-mouthed words that are spoken – it’s all as it would be in real life. The result is that the characters are not only portrayed in that grey area between black and white, not only given positive and negative attributes – but they are depicted in one of the most authentic ways I have ever seen on film.
It’s not only these aspects that make Arnold’s movie stand out, even if they are what hold it all together – she has a keen eye for shooting Mia’s environment as if it were a character itself: the defined areas of the gypsy camp, the council flat, Connor’s house, even the central reservation which seems to be the most likely place anybody would find Mia – they are all visually integrated into the proceedings, further adding to the realism. You follow Mia’s footsteps as she pegs it out of the door, down the tight concrete stairwell, and out into the car park; it’s not quite guerrilla filmmaking, yet there is no doubt that Arnold is shooting it all from Mia’s perspective, even if through those eyes she can paint broad landscapes.
Similarly, Arnold does a wonderful effort with the soundtrack: the songs peppered throughout are brilliantly chosen, with the dialogue often relating the thoughts of the character via the words sung. Whether it’s Bobby Womack’s take on California Dreamin’, or Nas’s Life’s a Bitch, the messages are impossible to ignore, and sometimes mark the closest thing the movie has to moments of exposition, albeit done in a seamlessly fluid, very natural fashion.
I’m not a particular fan of the despondency of most of Mike Leigh’s filmwork, or the gritty unpleasantness of Ken Loach’s more familiar forays, but there is a redemptive humanity to Andrea Arnold which sets her apart from the rest. She previously explored the darker side of retribution in the powerful, personal Red Road, her directorial debut. Before that it was short films, but they should not be ignored either – her final short film before going into movies was entitled Wasp, and even in its brief twenty-five minutes it painted a superior picture of semiurban kitchen sink trauma. She even won an Oscar for it too. With Fish Tank, Arnold has crafted a fantastic feature length sophomore effort, which neither goes for the bleak despondence of her counterparts, nor offers up some kind of keen resolution or saccharin prediction of the future of her characters. She merely paints them as real – i.e. showing them to have a future, whatever that may be. Subtly powerful, capturing very realistic emotional responses, with sometimes beautiful, sometimes brutal honesty, and empathetic characters that you can truly relate to – even if you can’t always sympathise with them, Fish Tank is well worth your time. Whether as a breathtaking new entry in the sub-genre of contemporary social realism dramas, or an acutely accurate snapshot into the life of a troubled teenage girl desperate to escape the trappings of her class, it’s a poignant journey that everybody should take.
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