Saturday, July 05, 2014

Fish Tank

Since I want to discuss this film rather than simply reviewing it, let it be known that spoilers abound. ‘Fish Tank’ came highly recommended, but I approached it with some trepidation nonetheless. A rites of passage/dysfunctional family saga set on a sinkhole estate; a clutch of reviews declaring director Andrea Arnold as the heir apparent to Ken Loach. Hmmmm. It’s been twenty years since Loach made ‘Ladybird Ladybird’, a dysfunctional family saga set on a sinkhole estate, and I can still remember the abject feeling of pointlessness that accompanied me out of the cinema. No exaggeration: I’ve seen films by Tarkovsky, Bergman and Gaspar Noe that have left me feeling better about life.

And to some degree ‘Fish Tank’ ticked some of the anticipated boxes: feisty, foul-mouthed heroine (the very first line of dialogue contains the word “cunt”); arguments and slammed doors; the threat of violence; sexual awakening courtesy of an older (and not necessarily trustworthy) man; social workers; poverty; hardscrabble lives; booze and theft as a coping mechanism.

Which, granted, is prime Loach territory. But ‘Fish Tank’ is more than just an improv-ridden slice of life. It’s a very carefully crafted and often surprisingly subtle piece of work. It teases with hints of melodrama, particularly in a squirmily discomforting sequence towards the end, only to draw back into the lives of its characters (Arnold, as writer and director, genuinely cares about and engages with her characters) and remain clear sighted in its aesthetic. ‘Fish Tank’ is one of the few examples of its type where the cinematography manages to demonstrate an interest in composition while suggesting the hand-held verité style, and whose script is interested in subtlety, structure and foreshadowing. 

The plot unfolds as thus: 15-year old Mia (Katie Jarvis) lives with her mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) in a drab flat on one of those godawful estates that housing planners in Britain put up in the 60s and 70s in the mistaken belief that they were creating low-income concrete utopias. Mia skips school, fails to keep appointments with her social worker, practices dance moves in an empty flat that she breaks into, and tries to free a horse chained up near a caravan on a bit of wasteland on the outskirts of town. This brings her into conflict with a couple of aggressive siblings who attack her; their younger brother, Billy (Harry Treadaway), intervenes and Mia escapes. One day, charismatic stranger Connor O’Reilly (Michael Fassbender) appears on the scene having struck up something of a whirlwind romance with Joanne. Connor makes efforts to befriend the sisters, even though Mia treats him antagonistically to begin with. Mia sends an audition tape to a club advertising for dancers; Connor lends her the camcorder to film her routine and encourages her in applying. Mia and Connor strike up a closer relationship after the latter moves in. She also begins a fledgling relationship with Billy. One night while Joanne is incapacitated by drink and Connor also under the influence, Mia and Conner have sex. Connor leaves the next day and Mia tracks him down to suburban semi in a fairly affluent area. Breaking into his house, she plays back footage on the camcorder that demonstrates he’s married and has a younger daughter. Later, Mia lures Connor’s daughter away and the child almost drowns in a misadventure. Mia takes her home; Connor pursues Mia and strikes her, then walks off without a word. Mia attends the dance audition and walks out – the place is a pole-dancing club. At home, she packs a bag and leaves to go with Harry to a different part of the country.

Here’s the unexpected thing about ‘Fish Tank’ – and it might even sound improbable in light of the plot synopsis above: it was entertaining; energising, even. It gave me a buzz, and I’m still not entirely sure I can pin down why. On the surface, it should be miserablism plus VAT. Just take a look at our three main characters! Mia swears like a Russian sailor with a hangover, head butts a girl she gets into an argument with, alternately steals money from Connor’s wallet and shamelessly taps him for loans, drinks like a fish (either stealing alcohol or getting one of the estate youths to buy it for her), commits B&E, and kidnaps a child. Joanne’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking failure whose only demonstrable commitment to being a mother is the provision of the “m” in the acronym “milf”. Connor’s a liar, a cheat and, ultimately, a paedophile. Nobody on the periphery is ostensibly very sympathetic, either. In fact, on paper, perhaps only Billy can be described in terms of redeeming features, and he’s chavvy oik who breaks into scrapyards in order to steal. 

And yet I didn’t feel any dislike or judgementalism towards these characters. Partly that’s due to the quality of the performances, Jarvis in particular making an astounding debut (she had no formal training or acting experience and was apparently spotted by a casting director in the throes of an argument with her boyfriend; she was offered an audition on the spot). Partly it’s because the script bothers to present them as fully-rounded characters with all the quirks and contradictions that define most people; and it has to be said that the script achieves this as much by what it leaves out. Arnold leaves her audience to guess at how Connor and Joanne hook up, and what stage he’s at in his relationship with his wife. Trial separation? A loveless marriage in which both partners maintain an “arrangement” whilst staying together for the sake of their daughter? Or is his sojourn at Joanne’s flat timebound by some excuse that gets him away for a few nights?

Similarly, Connor’s early overtures towards Mia: the actions of a man easing his way into Joanne’s household by the simple expedient of winning over her daughters; or those of a predator, a groomer; or is he, for all that he crosses that most socially taboo of lines, basically a rough diamond, an otherwise okayish bloke who just happens to think through his pecker rather than using his cranium? Fassbender’s performance suggests all these aspects and more; Connor emerges as a bloke’s bloke, fond of women and beer, but a man who can banter with Mia and Tyler, take an interest in the lives of people around him, and maintain a degree of professionalism at work. It’s not easy to write him off or censure him even though he hits some pretty reprehensible heights as the film progresses.

Conversely, it’s easy to continue rooting for Mia even though her kidnapping of Connor’s daughter is a gruelling scene to watch. Arnold sets it up so that the rusty barbed wire of a fence presents the first threat to the girl (her dress snags, but she surmounts it otherwise unscathed), a couple of combine harvesters on the other side of a field present the second (she bolts in the other direction), and Mia’s snatching up of a stick from the ground suggests violence against her (she actually uses it to drag the girl out of a lake). Time after time, melodrama seems to lurch into the foreground only for Arnold to keep things mired in reality.

Mia’s anger is sometimes difficult to fathom: the film opens in the immediate aftermath of a falling out with a friend, the circumstances of which are never revealed. Sometimes her outbursts seem to be the product of little more than things being internalised for too long. Other times, such as the kidnapping, there’s a sense of righteous (if twisted indignation): Connor has exploded the dynamic of her family, so she perpetrates an act calculated to blow his apart. Ditto the scene, very early on (foreshadowing the pole-dancing club audition), where she watches five girls dancing and provokes them into an argument which she resolves with the aforementioned head butt. The girls are roughly her age, but heavily sexualised in their dress and the girl band style dance routine they’re rehearsing. The contrast with Mia’s own dance practice – baggy pants, hoodie, hip hop beats – paints its own picture.

Dance and music play a crucial role. ‘Fish Tank’ ends with three definitive leave-takings. There is Mia’s discovery that the horse she tried to rescue has been put down; it’s the first time that her belligerent façade cracks and she permits herself an openly emotional outpouring. The other two key into the music and dance aesthetic. When Mia storms out of the audition in disgust, it’s only after she’s passed a CD to the sound guy and her song of choice has started playing: Bobby Womack’s cover of ‘California Dreaming’ (I’ve never been a fan of the over-produced Beach Boys original; Womack’s stripped down version is a different piece entirely) – a song that Connor introduced her to. She walks out while it’s still playing, not stopping to get the CD back. A moment that’s unforced but freighted with meaning.

Finally, Mia quits the family home to start some kind of new life with Billy. “Fuck off then,” is Joanne’s immediate homily: she’s three sheets to the wind and clumsily executing an attempt at a dance routine, hands held up almost in the stance of a boxer. So many kitchen sink dramas would have cut to a slammed door and Mia walking slowly away. Arnold has Mia and Tyler join their faded dipso of a mother – but their mother nonetheless – and they dance until the song on the radio has played out. Joanne’s moves become more intuitive, her stance less defensive. Tyler sees Mia to Billy’s car. “I hate you,” she declares, hugging her sister fervently. “I hate you, too,” Mia responds. It’s a perfect via negativa, the word “love” hanging in the air more clearly than if it had actually been said.

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