Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fish Tank

Academy Award winning director Andrea Arnold’s uncompromising, unapologetic coming-of-age story demands to be seen. Set on an Essex council estate, Arnold’s film makes the home truths dished out in Billy Elliot and An Education look gleefully romanticised. Her hardnosed, utterly compelling portrait of 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) is nothing short of a cinematic revelation, more akin to Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine or even Francois Truffaut’s transcendent The 400 Blows.

Reuniting with her Wasp and Red Road cinematographer Robbie Ryan, Arnold simply follows Mia as she stalks around her domain - the camera studying its subject in an almost ethnographic fashion. Mouthy, aggressive and all but alienated from her single, young Mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing), school isn’t even a consideration as Mia’s routine finds her hunting down enough coin for cheap cider, before holing up in an empty flat to drink and dance her sorry reality away. That's how it is until Joanne takes up with a dashing Irishman, Connor (Michael Fassbender), whose kindness, generosity and lithe body soon capture Mia’s attention.

Fish Tank is a slow-burning story that unfolds in one exquisitely loaded scene after the next. Driven by two powerhouse performances from Jarvis and Fassbender (who are impressively supported by Wareing), Arnold allows her characters enough rope to hang themselves, while also managing to infuse some touching moments of genuine affection as well as a glimpse of whimsy. Infamously discovered during a public spat with her boyfriend, Jarvis is perfectly cast - all rough edges and attitude, yet she plays Mia with touching compassion. Fassbender is similarly in his element, bewitching and fearlessly fetishised by both Mia and Arnold. His is a subtler role, played with such a lightness of touch that the audience becomes complicit in his moral ambiguity.

As an overarching metaphor, Fish Tank is devastatingly apt. Arnold is perhaps less successful with her symbolism of the chained, graying nag, and is unnecessarily blatant with the closing rap 'Life’s a Bitch'. Some may also feel that the third act veers dramatically off course/ Mia’s single-mindedness, however, is the constant through line that Arnold follows to a gripping, heart-rending conclusion.

Awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes, a BAFTA for Outstanding British Film as well as a slew of festival awards, Fish Tank is worthy of its pedigree. As a coming-of-age film it is crafted from an intense reality; one where dreams of dancing aren’t nearly enough to escape the tarnished cage of the council estate.

Published by The Big Issue (#355)
Australian release date: 27 May 2010

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