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)

12 Responses to “Review: Fish Tank (2010) **** 1/2”

  1. I’ve been waiting to hear more on this flick — thanks, Craig.

  2. My pleasure, Pierre. It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but those who like their dramas stark, real and sort of minimalist should enjoy.

    It’s not really fair of me to even compare it to An Education beyond the story similarities, they’re simply two different kinds of movies and there’s nothing wrong with that, but An Education has sort of been anointed and I hope some of the attention rubs off on Fish Tank.

    Two noted Oscar bloggers have been all over the former while essentially dismissing the latter so I think I’m being a little defensive.

  3. Excellent review Craig. One can’t help but make the comparison with An Education and as a result the more high profile film comes off as a fairly empty confection.

    ***spoilers***

    A key difference, however, is that Mia is under-age. And this contributes to a point of difference between our takes. “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.” In constrast I think he is absolutely a predator, and it is a very realistic take on how such individuals groom their victims and incrementally violate appropriate adult-child boundaries. Predators are often successful because they are charming and do have a capacity for kindness and concern. But what fundamentally motivates and shapes their behavior towards a child or young person is the achievement of a sexual goal, not the well-being of their victim. Arnold doesn’t seek to underline what we observe as sexual abuse but she nevertheless depicts it and the kinds of more destructive immediate consequences that result from such behaviour very realistically.

  4. ***Spoilers****

    I’m not attempting to make it OK what Fassbender’s character does, but the way he plays him isn’t the stereotyped drooling child molester and the film is more powerful for it.

  5. ***Spoilers***

    I didn’t mean to suggest you were Craig. And I agree, he’s not a drooling stereotyped child molester. I just wanted to underscore that in my experience his was a very accurate portrayal of how many such predators favorably present and subtly conduct themselves.

  6. I just wanted to be clear I wasn’t trying to portray him as anything other than what he was.

    ***spoilers****

    The accuracy of the portrayal I find leads the film away from easy melodrama (for the better), keeps the focus on Mia where it belongs and makes it all the more horrifying when that part of the narrative plays out as you suspect it will.

  7. ****spoilers****

    “The accuracy of the portrayal I find leads the film away from easy melodrama (for the better), keeps the focus on Mia where it belongs and makes it all the more horrifying when that part of the narrative plays out as you suspect it will.”

    Couldn’t agree more, it was an excellent artistic decision and speaks to why the film was so wonderfully effective.

  8. Wow, lots of spoilers in the comments. Like a good boy, I ducked and ran for cover at the sight of them.

    “solicitous of a mainstream audience”, “it might not draw as big of an audience as Sherfig’s entertaining film”

    If I recall correctly, An Education only made around 8 or 9 million in theatres. Even less than The Hurt Locker. While I know Fish Tank won’t make half that much, An Education wasn’t really a big money earner. That said, your point still stands.

    Good review Craig. Fish Tank (and An Education for that matter) are still two films I have to catch up with.

  9. An Education definitely wasn’t a blockbuster, though it’s still in theaters and still making money. It will probably pull in some more when Mulligan gets her Oscar nomination. If it had had a big star and had gotten a bigger push from the studio, I think it would’ve made some decent money.

    Based on this review, it sounds like I didn’t like An Education, but I actually did. I liked it less the first time I saw it, but it was still very enjoyable.

  10. “It’s not going to appeal to everyone, but those who like their dramas stark, real and sort of minimalist should enjoy.”

    I can’t wait to see this one! One of the reasons I didn’t particularly fall for An Education was the fact that I didn’t feel the adjectives you mentioned in the quote. Those are the dramas that affect me the most, not the more tidy ones like An Education.

  11. Good to see you again, Danny.

    Based on what you say here, I have a feeling you’ll be a big fan of Fish Tank. I could be wrong, wouldn’t be the first time, but I hope I’m right.

  12. I’ll be sure to report back when I get a chance to see it.

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