I got the opportunity to re-examine Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank for the film’s Blu-ray release from Criterion (you can find my initial review here), and I’m glad I took a second look. While I still have deep reservations about the problematic third act, much of the film is a fascinating aesthetic glide through one girl’s duel with impending adulthood. Hypnotic imagery, Arnold’s ground level camera movement (influenced by the Dardennes I’m sure), and Katie Jarvis’ uncanny lead performance are all worth the price of admission, or in this case a rental of the stellar high-definition copy. Here’s hoping Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights will be at Cannes this year, because I just might get to see it.
In Andrea Arnold’s lethargic sophomore effort Fish Tank, subtle winds of change blow 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis) from casual teen angst into seriously disappointed adulthood. Throughout the tonally schizophrenic narrative, Mia’s rocky coming of age moments (disappointing relationships, serious father issues, fractured identity) barb the quietest sections of the film with overblown confrontations between key players. Despite Mia’s undeniable need to transcend situational conflict, her trial and error learning curve ultimately flops around like the film’s simplistic centralized metaphor – a plump fish plucked from a country river left to waste on her family’s dirty kitchen floor. Unfortunately, Mia’s elongated plight produces only knee high symbolism.
The social scales tip against Mia from the very beginning, as she loses (or alienates) a best friend and relentlessly battles with her promiscuous single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). To complicate things, Joanne begins seeing a charming stranger named Connor (Michael Fassbender), a tender bloke who might be slightly morally askew. Arnold treats early interactions between Mia and Connor with exciting urgency, clouding the air with the drowsy tangents and fanciful innuendo. As they spend more time together, Mia’s perception of Connor begins to dangerously coagulate, clogging the reality of their relationship with dangerous gusts of emotion. Mia’s consciousness often screeches to a halt as Connor becomes part father figure, part love interest, all poison for her impressionable state of mind. Arnold makes certain we understand this layered connection, using slow motion and heightened sound design to lyrically construct fleeting moments. In one particularly beautiful sequence, Connor tends to a gash on Mia’s foot during a countryside day trip, Arnold favoring the sensuality of elements (blood, water), instantly pushing the film into emotional overdrive. Close-ups of Connor’s masculine figure and Mia’s stricken face merge together, creating an unnatural poetry to a relationship destined to come crashing down.
Friendship, family, and community represent Mia’s own version of the Medieval stocks, institutions trapping her in a relentless vice of uncertainty and unrest. As with her breakthrough film Red Road, Arnold stalks her tormented heroine around every corner, through windowpanes, and from various vantage points surrounding the low rent London projects of the film’s setting. But the visual precision and menace of that film has all but vanished in Fish Tank, replaced by a messy handheld scattering of stagnant high rises, cramped mechanical dumps, and lonely dirt fields. Lyrical parallels to Mia’s bursting humanity and hope jump out amidst this volatile world, like the image of an old mare chained in the center of a junkyard, or when Mia’s younger sister eases her head out the car window to soak in the fresh air of the lush countryside. Mia’s salvation resides in the details, yet Arnold can’t muster enough of them to making a lasting impact.
Fish Tank exists primarily to explore Mia’s need for connection, be it with another human being, her passion for hip-hop, or nature itself. But Arnold shoves Mia toward a tragic shift in motivation during the last act, and the film’s various themes come to fruition rather haphazardly as a result. Fish Tank doesn’t bare enough teeth to make these potential conclusions valid, and Arnold seems content merely suggesting them instead of completely darkening her protagonist’s desires. If Red Road signfyed a talented filmmaker grappling with the dark interior motivations behind torturous guilt and retribution, Fish Tank submerges these considerations in a leaden vessel anchored by burdensome trauma, suffocating under the pressure of its own superficial surface.
Like her American counterpart Lodge Kerrigan, Andrea Arnold is a cinematic stalker, stealthily following her tormented characters as they search for absolution in an urban sprawl, building tension until it’s too much to bear. Ironically, Red Road begins not on the city streets which make up most of it’s locale, but with a dynamic camera set-up in a closed room overwhelmed by computer monitors. Jackie (Kate Dickie) works as a CCTV operator, sitting alone watching the many cameras perched above Glasgow’s roughest districts. It’s Rear Window for the digital age as Jackie scans image after image, following citizens as they walk dogs, window shop, all with the ominous pretense that she’ll witness something awful. Jackie seems to be yearning over a past trauma, and one night she sees a ghostly face on the monitor that awakens horrible memories of the past. This event jettisons Jackie from the dark room of voyeurism to the widescreen panoramas of action.
Arnold doesn’t turn Red Road into a standard revenge thriller, but something altogether more disturbing and somber. As Jackie stalks the man responsible for her mysterious trauma, she gradually unleashes a plan so ill-conceived and overly dangerous it makes the film’s subtle plot points all the more suspenseful. Arnold often frames Jackie against the stunning high rises that give the film its title, a lone figure amongst an ocean of poverty and loneliness. If the film drags out too long, it’s because Arnold has a desire to push the audience toward understanding the methods and complexities of both lead characters, seeing them as flip sides of the same traumatic coin. The situation itself becomes the focus, and Arnold masterfully captures the numbing cold of both character and environment as her hand held camera bobs and weaves through the dank Scottish night. Red Road might not fully deliver on it’s brilliant opening act, but it does showcase a dynamic filmmaking talent willing to follow her characters into the depths of hell, and bring them back again fully realized.