Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a volatile 15-year-old, who is always in trouble; she has been excluded from school and is ostracized by her friends. One summer's day her mother (Kierston Wareing) brings home a mysterious stranger, Connor (Michael Fassbender), who promises to change everything and bring love into all their lives.
Review by Louise Keller:
Offering a slice of life from the Ken Loach-style of cinema, this kitchen sink drama takes us into the world of an angry 15 year old misfit in Essex, struggling to find her way out of her stifling confines. Here in the housing commission environs, writer director Andrea Arnold has created an even bleaker environment than that of her 2006 drama Red Road and often uses hand-held camera in the same way to emphasise the story's most turbulent emotional moments. In her acting debut, Katie Jarvis gives a stunning performance as the rebellious Mia who discovers a new persona when her mother's handsome new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender, charismatic) gives her a taste of kindness. It's a tough film and while the ground covered does not bring any surprises, the journey we take is filled with gritty realism and the outcomes realistic.
When we meet Jarvis' Mia, we quickly see her two sides. There is the side that the whole world sees, including her brittle single parent mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) - the foul-mouthed, provocative young girl, and the one that no-one sees, when Mia is locked away in her room, listening to hip-hop music and expressing herself through dance. 'You dance like a black,' Fassbender's Connor tells her, when he happens to see her dancing in the kitchen, the first time he sleeps over. Just like the moment when Mia jumps on his back after hurting her foot, he gives her something to cling to. Vital things like encouragement and moral support as well as the inevitability that results from the sexual spark that ignites between them. Fassbender gets the tone just right in a role that could have swayed into a sleaziness his character does not possess.
Arnold has written fully dimensional characters, even the ones that we do not get to know very much about, like Harry Treadaway's Billy, the boy looking for Volvo parts. There are excellent performances from everyone and Rebecca Griffiths as Mia's younger sister Tyler makes an impression as the outspoken child who comes up with great one-liners like 'I like you; I'll kill you last'. The club dance-audition is nothing more than a signpost for Mia, after she discovers something far more important about herself. The film is a bit long but our commitment to the characters remains even though the grainy video and production values often detract.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
When Andrea Arnold's Red Road was invited to Cannes in 2006, we saw a raw, new-ish talent, whose cinematic stomping ground seemed familiar: Britain's worn out, downtrodden housing estates (in that case Glasgow, here somewhere near Tilbury), where people live cheek by jowl and miserably. Arnold is repeating herself here, which is very different to what Ken Loach does in a similar milieu: he goes to story, whereas Arnold seems stuck in a groove of posturing. The 'working class women exploited by men' posture. Fish Tank neither illuminates nor deepens our understanding of the human condition; it's a bit pointless. And it's as manipulative as was Red Road. It is also made with the same Dogma-like aesthetic (natural lighting, awful sound, no music score), downsized to a 4:3 aspect ratio - fitting, since this really is more like a telemovie than a big screen project.
The problem we critics face in reviewing this film is that to deal with it in any meaningful way we would have to reveal too much that is best revealed in the film. This would be unfair to those readers who will see it. But it's also unfair to all readers who want to use our comments in making that decision.
Story and treatment aside, there are some major plusses in Fish Tank, notably Katie Jarvis as Mia, whose world we visit. Michael Fassbender as Connor is also impressive, and perhaps the most (only?) interesting character in the film, a seemingly charming, decent young man who turns up out of the blue in the film, and ends up being a catalyst for change. Kierston Wareing as Mia's party-girl mother is probably wonderful, too, but the camera never stays still on her face long enough for us to get to know her at all. The most powerful tool cinema has - and it's one unique to cinema - is the close up, where we can see emotions begin and develop, and through the actors' eyes, we can see inside their souls. The fashionably indiscriminate hand held camerawork in Fish Tank largely denies us these entry points - and frustrates our sense of context as well.
Rebecca Griffiths is memorable as Mia's younger - but wiser - sister, and the minor supports are all excellent, in a bleak, grey lives sort of way.
Andrea Arnold seems to be trying hard to emulate the hard edged work of her English realist masters, but she is selfish and uncaring about her audience. In the third act, she manipulates a sequence with a small child, for example, which sets up terrible expectations; she does this with malice aforethought. And for all her angry, naturalistic, working class 'ain't it hell' ambitions, she reverts to a sorry version of one of the classic endings of cinema. She isn't as adventurous as she makes out, nor is she as incisive as she would like us to think.
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FISH TANK (MA)
CAST: Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Griffiths,
PRODUCER: Kees Kasander,
DIRECTOR: Andrea Arnold
SCRIPT: Andrea Arnold
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Robbie Ryan
EDITOR: Nicolas Chaudeurge
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Helen Scott
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 27, 2010
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