Fish Tank is the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a volatile 15-year-old, who is always in trouble and who has become excluded from school and ostracised by her friends. One hot summer’s day her mother brings home a mysterious stranger called Connor who promises to change everything and bring love into all their lives.
The profound essence of British cinema’s roots in social realism is taken to another level in Andrea Arnold’s chest-tightening Fish Tank, a coming-of-age drama of searing immediacy and heart-breaking intimacy.
The plot reads like a bullet-point blueprint of the classic working-class drama template: street-tough kid with a tortured home life but ambitious soft side, clings to whom and whatever might bring her a glimmer of happiness and hope, only to realise that, after all, she is in control of her own destiny.
Fish Tank is the story of Mia (Katie Jarvis), a take-no-shit teen whose life is one of physical and emotional self-defence. She grips vainly to the innocence and hope of a younger child – she tries over and over to free a chained horse in a concrete lot; she clings to the friendships of her early childhood in vain; she is entranced by animals. But she is not a little girl anymore – she talks tough and acts tougher. A neighbourhood mole stands up to her, so Mia head-butts her; her mother (Kierston Wareing) challenges her constantly, but is no match; her noisy, smartarse sister (a scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths) is swatted down like a bug if she gets too big for her boots.
Into Mia’s life arrives her Mum’s new shag, Connor (Britain’s next big thing, the wonderful Michael Fassbender). He offers some hope, happiness, encouragement, but also an uncomfortable physical openness around the girls – from early on, they appear in underwear and share bathroom duties in front of each other. He seems genuinely nice, especially with regard to Mia’s ambitions to be a hip-hop dancer.
This ambiguous build-up of this relationship gives Fish Tank its intensity. Fragile Mia lies at its core; she could enter her 20s coiled and emotionally impenetrable, or she could trust this man. Is he going to continue to build her confidence, or will he manifest as the devil the viewer fears he may be? Fassbender and Jarvis walk a razor’s edge in their characterisations and it is enthralling, exhilarating and unsettling to watch.
The dense, beautiful magic lies in the detail. There are moments that will become synonymous with the film as its status grows, small instances that deliver grand emotions – a hands-on fishing trip, a living-room dance illuminated by the warm glow of a yellow street lamp, a family chorus line just as the dysfunctional unit is about to crumble.
Arnold doesn’t always maintain the story’s narrative urgency – an extended, wordless sequence, introducing the third act, in which Mia uncovers the truth about Connor, sucks some of the tension from the plot and strains the emotional bond the audience shares with Mia. A frightening seaside sequence is particularly disturbing.
But Arnold never falters with her characters. It has been way too long since Australian audiences have been privy to such a finely-etched, deeply-interwoven study of the psychological minutiae of working class life in Britain; more specifically, the bonfire of hope that burns within the hearts of those who live it.
Andrea Arnold brings that bonfire to the screen in the form of her Mia, Katie Jarvis. A non-actor prior to the film, she is in every frame of Fish Tank and is so potent, you miss her between edits. Jarvis is a wonder – whether dancing to the American hip-hop beats that she sees as her ticket out of there; holding her ground against a world that wants to crush her spirit; or slowly shedding and exposing her rawness to a man who has shown her the slightest kindness.
Award bodies and world media rallied around Carey Mulligan after her prissy-princess role in the over-rated An Education, labelling her the next hot, young, talented starlet to emerge from across the pond. As Mia would say, 'Fuck that, bitch." Katie Jarvis’ acting debut in Fish Tank is the most enriching, engaging and enervating thing to happen to British film since Trainspotting. Her Mia is a sad, fierce, strong teen character that will resonate with disassociated youths for many years; a dark star has been born.