AFED #13: Fish Tank (UK, 2009); Dir. Andrea Arnold

Those of you who are British and of a certain vintage may recall a Saturday morning kids tv show that ran in the eighties called No.73. It was a rather odd affair; a magazine programme with guests and features that took place in a house (really a studio set ) and was fronted by presenters who played its residents.

I could never quite fathom what the domestic arrangement was supposed to be in the house. Comedienne Sandi Toksvig (in those days still in proud possession of a neck)  played Ethel, the homeowner and apparent matriarch, but were the other presenters supposed to be family members? It seemed a rather bohemian household and to my young mind there was something slightly unhealthy about it all.

Anyway, along with Toksvig another stalwart of the show was Andrea Arnold, who played a perpetually roller-skating redhead named Dawn. After No.73 ended she turned up as a presenter on one or two other things and then dropped out of sight. In the intervening years I may have wondered what happened to her but can't say it gave me any sleepless nights.

Then a few years ago she re-emerged as a highly regarded film-maker, directing the Oscar-winning short Wasp in 2005 and her debut feature Red Road shortly after. Then a couple of years ago came the slice-of-life tale Fish Tank.

It's the story of 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), a girl you could describe as having issues. A social misfit more inclined to headbutt other girls than befriend them, she lives with her mother and younger sister in a run-down Essex council flat. Mia's one source of relief is her dream of becoming a hip-hop dancer. That's until her mother brings home a handsome boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) and sends Mia's life spiralling towards a crisis.

Fish Tank is classic British social realism; of the sort pioneered at the Royal Court and the inspiration for the kitchen sink cycle of films. In many respects Mia's character can be seen as an updating of Rita Tishingham's heroine from A Taste of Honey; the same lippy manner and fractious relationship with her single mother. Brutalist tower blocks and handheld cameras may have replaced factories and wet cobblestones, but human melodramas remain the same.

Which is not to say that Fish Tank isn't a very good example of its type. Writer/director Arnold keeps her tone naturalistic and doesn't play to the galleries, even choosing to end what might be a very dour story on an upbeat note. As a former dancer herself one suspects there was at least some autobiographical input.

Arnold is abetted by a superb performance by Katie Jarvis, who was plucked from obscurity for the part. One would suppose Jarvis is effectively playing herself, and it will be interesting to see if she can capitalise on the success it's brought her in further roles, though that shouldn't detract from how totally she embodies it. Her counterpart Fassbender is of course an experienced thesp and again demonstrates just how versatile he is.

Like all films in this genre its appeal is to those who seek more than just escapism and there's an irony that those girls out there like Mia are precisely the sort you'd probably have to drag into the cinema to watch it. There's no easy solution to this but better that the choice exists than not at all.


  1. They should of held cast auditions in Redhill.

  2. I think they needed the characters to have at least a semblance of attractiveness, they weren't trying to remake 'Freaks'.


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