Andrea Arnold’s incredible domestic drama Fish Tank boasts a corrosive emotional intensity drawn out of its teenage protagonist’s insular turmoil and personified through Katie Jarvis understated performance. Dan Stephens looks at this lo-fi masterpiece…
Ostensibly a domestic “sink estate” drama, what’s most surprising about Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank is the corrosive emotional intensity she draws out of her teenage protagonist’s various personal dilemmas. Intimately framed in the Academy ratio, the director herself has talked about the squarer format’s inherent ability to draw the audience into personal conflict and character. It’s an approach that underlines her focus, the camera never leaving actor Katie Jarvis’ side, her role as isolated teen Mia Williams laid bare warts and all.
Indeed, Michael Fassbender’s handsome Conor O’Reily – with his beguiling Irish accent – asks her in one of the film’s many simple but significant moments if Mia has ever washed her feet when helping tend to a cut on her ankle. He’s her mother’s new boyfriend, I assume the latest in a long line of male partners, and one who immediately catches Mia’s eye. His masculinity contrasts the all-female home from which Mia finds herself living; a relaxed charm, wide-eyed intelligence and calm manner very different to her living room wars with neglectful mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and sibling rivalry with precocious, foul-mouthed, younger sister Tyler.
Arnold’s approach is to maintain our attention on Mia throughout. We therefore see the world as she sees it; angry and disenfranchised, at once desperate for escape but internalised by an acceptance of her lot in life. She finds expression through small-scale squabbles and an enthusiasm for street dance, secretly practicing in an abandoned apartment block on the estate. It might be suffocating if it were not so compelling. Mia’s assertive, self-defiance is a commendable, sympathetic trait made more appealing by Jarvis’ subtly effective performance that enlivens a sense of ambiguity in her actions and motivation.
It culminates in a brilliant final third. Arnold showcases an ability to tie the strands of Mia’s story together through a genuinely gripping finale that remains faithful to the grit and grime of the teenager’s environment while underlining her enigmatic impulses that highlight both youthful recklessness and intelligence beyond her years. Indeed, there’s a lovely metaphor involving an aging horse on a traveller’s site. Mia tries to free the animal but is assaulted by its owners. It befits the girl’s predicament; her escape constricted by the intangibles outside her control.