Katie Jarvis in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank
Two English coming-of-age dramas about young girls at a crossroads whose fates are impacted by older men emerged from the festival circuit as critical darlings in 2009. Lone Sherfig’s An Education was a Sundance hit that has already landed in theaters while Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank made waves at Cannes and arrives in the US this week. Though they share some commonalities, ultimately the two films couldn’t be more different.
With its easy-to-swallow gloss and neatly resolved uplift, An Education is jaunty, eager to please and solicitous of a mainstream audience. Fish Tank on the other hand is harder-edged, grimmer and more uncompromising. While it might not draw as big of an audience as Sherfig’s entertaining film, it offers a more challenging character study and a slice of working class English life that feels wholly real. Of the two, it’s also a more powerful, moving and better film.
Newcomer Katie Jarvis makes a strong impression as Mia, a sullen 15-year-old trapped in a bleak, Essex apartment block with her little sister and dud of a mother. Dissatisfied but armed with only the vaguest notion of how to escape her lot in life, Mia charges through the film chin first with a barely contained anger-fueled intensity – a balled fist of a girl ready to lash out at anyone who crosses her with bad intentions or good.
Unlike An Education’s pretty Carey Mulligan who had the deck stacked in her favor as Jenny, a smart and likable character surrounded by morons, Jarvis’ Mia is admittedly difficult to warm up to. And yet, Mia feels real. Her ill-focused rage is a hallmark of a certain adolescent age, but it’s not all that defines her. In occasional unguarded moments, Mia’s capacity and yearning for genuine love emerges from behind her curtain of discontent and she’s revealed to be a feeling, caring, sympathetic human being. By comparison, the heroine of An Education finally seems like a privileged, selfish complainer.
The biggest name in the film as far as US audiences are concerned is Michael Fassbender who you’ll remember from his intense performance in Hunger and more widely as British agent Lt. Archie Hicox in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. He’s great here as the charming and handsome new boyfriend of Mia’s mother. You fear from the start by the way he interacts with Mia that there is the potential for an inappropriate physical relationship between the two, but Fassbender doesn’t play him as a predator. He has a genuine concern for Mia and he seems to be the only adult in the film who understands where she’s coming from. Of course, his role as a kind of father figure makes the looming threat he represents that much more disconcerting. It’s a difficult line to tread, but Fassbender pulls it off with great sensitivity and Fish Tank pays off all the more for it.
Though it sounds grueling, Fish Tank is more than just a despairing slog through the working class trenches. Vague and unarticulated as they may be, Mia has hopes of her own and the spare realism of her story is punctuated by surprising moments of dreamy beauty. She’s relatable once you get under her skin and though her story ends on an unresolved note, you know enough about her to believe she just might make something of herself. More importantly, she’s made you care enough so that you hope that she does.
Fish Tank. UK 2009 (US release 2010). Written and directed by Andrea Arnold. Cinematography by Robbie Ryan. Edited by Nicolas Chaudeurge. Starring Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Sydney Mary Nash and Harry Treadaway. 2 hours 4 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 4.5 stars (out of 5)