In Fish Tank (2009), the follow-up to director Andrea Arnold’s striking debut Red Road (2006), Katie Jarvis portrays 15-year old Mia. In her uniform of tracksuit with hooded sweatshirt and gold Argos hoop earrings, hair scraped back into a ponytail, Mia outwardly conforms to the social type of “chav” geezer bird. Hip hop cranked up on her iPod, her coltish adolescent limbs hunched into defensive body language and her default facial expression set to perma-scowl, Mia is a spicy, volatile and complex combination of tough, vulnerable and hurt. A product of poverty and parental neglect, the wary and wounded Essex council estate urchin has a bubbling inner inferno of rage (we see her head-butting another girl, breaking her nose) which she tempers with vodka and cider-drinking binges.
More constructively, Mia finds escape, creative release and emotional expression in urban dance: Arnold shows her dancing alone to rap music in a sun-drenched abandoned flat in her council building, lost in her own world. (Don’t worry: this is nowhere near as Flashdance as I make it sound). Mia seems to have stoically minimal expectations from life – but her dancing (fluid, introspective and athletic) could be a pathway to something better, if she doesn’t jab the self destruct button first.
Mia lives in an abject high-rise council estate with Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), her sewer-mouthed, tough-as-nails little sister, and Joanne (Kierston Wareing), her booze-sodden thirty-something single mother. Joanne – a blowsy slattern in a denim micro mini-skirt – is a real piece of work, apt to warn her daughters, “I’m having my friends ‘round later. Either stay in your room or get out. No kids!” Later she confides to Mia, “Did I ever tell you I nearly had you aborted? I even made the appointment.” It’s an appalling thing to say, and yet the exchange is the closest thing to intimacy we’ve seen between Mia and her mother.
The arrival of Joanne's charismatic new boyfriend, Irish charmer Connor, awakens in Mia an aching and confusing craving for a paternal figure in her life, for the male tenderness she’s never known – feelings she probably didn’t even know she had. (There is not a single reference in the film to whoever Mia and Taylor’s biological father(s) may have been). In her interactions with an emaciated horse belonging to a local gypsy family, we’ve already seen Mia has a great but thwarted capacity for affection. But Mia and Connor’s nascent relationship is complicated by a smouldering and antagonistic mutual attraction, and the potential for adult betrayal and disappointment seems inevitable. (As portrayed by the sinewy and frequently shirtless Michael Fassbender, Connor is certainly sexy as hell).
I’m determined not to give away any spoilers, but there is a virtuoso, heart-pounding scene towards the end where one character breaks into another character’s house and uncovers the secret of their hidden double life. The skin-prickling suspense of them potentially getting caught is intertwined with the primal fascination with uncovering the unknowable secrets of other peoples’ lives. The sequence recalls the mesmerising scene in Arnold’s earlier Red Road, where the female protagonist crashes a house party thrown by a man she’s stalking, and can be favourably compared to Jeffrey sneaking into nightclub singer Dorothy Vallen’s apartment in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
For a Brit film set amongst the council estate-dwelling under classes, Fish Tank is never once “gritty” in the clichéd and predictable sense – it’s lyrical and sensitive. Arnold’s eye is sensual, grungy and tactile, finding desolate beauty and scuzzy poetry in unexpected places: sites of urban decay, scrubby wastelands, overcast skies, chain link fences, a bulging-eyed dying fish gasping for air. This is exciting modern filmmaking by any standards – Arnold tells Mia’s story in jagged shards, using jittery hand-held camera and jarring jump cuts to plunge us into the drama.
Arnold has been compared to Ken Loach and Lynne Ramsay, two British filmmakers I’m ashamed to say I’m not terribly au fait with. Interestingly, The New York Times compared Fish Tank to The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut’s 1959 nouvelle vague study of maladjusted adolescence. What Fish Tank reminded me of is Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s early hard-edged social realist tragediesAccattone (1961) and Mamma Roma (1962), updated to the present-day council estates of Essex. Arnold shares Pasolini’s clear-eyed compassion for her deeply-flawed and impoverished characters, and her long takes depicting Mia isolated and alienated in her gray concrete surroundings recall how Pasolini presented Franco Citti as his doomed anti-hero in Accattone.
Like the Italian neo-realists, Arnold frequently casts non-professional actors in her films. The acting in Fish Tank is naturalistic and nuanced without exception. Professionals Fassbender and Wareing are certainly deserving of kudos, but Katie Jarvis – who had no prior acting experience before Fish Tank -- is a heartbreaker, affecting in the way only an untutored “amateur” can be. (There’s no “technique” to her performance and no drama school could teach Jarvis’ ability to suggest mute hurt and curiosity. She’s pure animal grace and innate sensitivity). As well as Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows, Jarvis evokes wild child gamine actress Linda Manz. Manz famously never went on to have much of a film career after her powerful early impact in Days of Heaven (1978) and Out of the Blue (1980). Not to sound overly pessimistic, but Fish Tank probably represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for Jarvis, who is unlikely to ever get another great role like Mia again. But then did Ettore Garofolo (the boy who played Anna Magnani’s son in Mamma Roma ) ever act in another film again? And his sole performance remains haunting and memorable almost 50 years later; so, inevitably, will Jarvis’s.
Fish Tank is frequently wrenchingly painful and a tragic conclusion seems imminent from its opening frames, and yet (again being scrupulous about no spoilers!) it ends on a note of cautious but genuine optimism and hope for change. One of the last songs we hear on the soundtrack is by the rapper Nas, with the repeated refrain “Life’s a bitch.” Nas isn’t wrong, but one of the compelling qualities in Andrea Arnold’s films is that people do reflect and learn from their mistakes.