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Fish Tank

The Observer recently conducted a poll to find the best ever British films, prompting luminaries and Ordinary Joe to shuffle their Merchant Ivory, Anthony Minghella and Danny Boyle films around. Withnail and Mike Leigh were present and correct, as were the other usual suspects. (No Morvern Callar, though – craziness.) But they should’ve hung fire until Andrea Arnold’s masterful new film, Fish Tank, was released. It’s hardly a departure from the fine Red Road, but it’s considerably better, and is surely the best British film since Trainspotting. It injects new strife into the Brit gloomfest, and every grubby, dread-inducing second of it makes Looking For Eric look like a charming TV movie. It’s determinedly scruffy, confrontational and doesn’t care whether you like it or not. But you will.

Arnold loves basking misery in sickly sunshine, high-rises that are blankly poised realms of imminent rebuke and defiant lost causes. She also loves people, particularly fuck-ups, the more problematically wound the better.

Katie Jarvis, remarkably a newcomer with zilch acting experience prior to this, is, honestly, staggering as Mia, pent-up and wired with erratic bile, self-hating and condemned to counting off her ASBOs and contemplating a life of fraught compromise. She’s trapped in a hellhole with her gobshite, mini-me little sister and her fuseless, wasted and left behind mum. Unless she heads out into the locale, which only leads to trouble of a different ilk. Before you know it she’s atomised and bloodied a young girl in a needless face-off and been thwarted in her attempt to free a horse. And the lairyness doesn’t lessen.

Michael Fassbender, as ubiquitous as it comes at the moment, is exceptional as mum’s new piece, all rugged effervescence, a charismatic, platinum-tongued character that Mia doesn’t really know what to do with. Clearly starved of a male role-model, she is by turns reluctantly intrigued and wilfully obstinate, unwilling to accept the possibility, initially, that he’s anything but another let-down in-waiting. She slowly warms to him, notwithstanding the odd petulant eruption, and the combination of her sexual awakening and her gradual acceptance of this potential father-figure become horribly meshed in devastating fashion. Credit to Arnold for rendering the whole climactic episode with such unflinching, unjudgemental power. There are no victims and no perpetrators here: people collide and shit surely happens.

There are some great dialogue exchanges and lines in the film that don’t try to hard to ingratiate themselves or make forced commentary, as can be the case too often with kitchen-sink cinema. ‘I like you, I’ll kill you last.’ ‘I’ve got the number for Childline, if you want it?’ And, during an embrace, ‘I hate you!’ ‘I hate you too!’ All such exchanges just hang there, as much humorous as pointed, perfectly believable and extremely affecting.

Fish Tank is a picaresque, a sequence of scrapes, a drably electric nightmare, with our vantage point, Mia, ducking and diving and ducking in-and-out of dives with clenched fists. Arnold throws her into various scenarios almost as though to record her ability to repel all-comers, accusatory finger gleefuly poised on her self-destruct button. Her combustibility is never more than a fraction beneath the surface, and anyone and everyone seems likely to fuel it any given moment. Equilibrium is an impossibility and hope is drowning in pint dregs. Yet, and testament to the brilliance of the young star, she is easy to empathise with, despite her snapshot irascibility. When we see beyond the vitriol, there’s a lot to like, and for such a previously unbeknownst first-timer to imbue Mia with such depth is remarkable. We know her dreams of becoming a dancer are likely a pipedream but we want her to make it anyway. She is driven, but to where? Right to the upper echelons of British cinema, if nowhere else.

The Observer recently conducted a poll to find the best ever British films, prompting luminaries and Ordinary Joe to shuffle their Merchant Ivory, Anthony Minghella and Danny Boyle films around. Withnail and Mike Leigh were present and correct, as were the other usual suspects. (No Morvern Callar, though – craziness.) But they should’ve hung fire until Andrea Arnold’s masterful new film, Fish Tank, was released. It’s hardly a departure from the fine Red Road, but it’s considerably better, and is surely the best British film since Trainspotting. It injects new strife into the Brit gloomfest, and every grubby, dread-inducing second of it makes Looking For Eric look like a charming TV movie. It’s determinedly scruffy, confrontational and doesn’t care whether you like it or not. But you will. Arnold loves basking misery in sickly sunshine, high-rises that are blankly poised realms of imminent rebuke and defiant lost causes. She also loves people, particularly fuck-ups, the more problematically wound the better. Katie Jarvis, remarkably a newcomer with zilch acting experience prior to this, is, honestly, staggering as Mia, pent-up and wired with erratic bile, self-hating and condemned to counting off her ASBOs and contemplating a life of fraught compromise. She’s trapped in a hellhole with her gobshite, mini-me little sister and her fuseless, wasted and left behind mum. Unless she heads out into the locale, which only leads to trouble of a different ilk. Before you know it she’s atomised and bloodied a young girl in a needless face-off and been thwarted in her attempt to free a horse. And the lairyness doesn’t lessen. Michael Fassbender, as ubiquitous as it comes at the moment, is exceptional as mum’s new piece, all rugged effervescence, a charismatic, platinum-tongued character that Mia doesn’t really know what to do with. Clearly starved of a male role-model, she is by turns reluctantly intrigued and wilfully obstinate, unwilling to accept the possibility, initially, that he’s anything but another let-down in-waiting. She slowly warms to him, notwithstanding the odd petulant eruption, and the combination of her sexual awakening and her gradual acceptance of this potential father-figure become horribly meshed in devastating fashion. Credit to Arnold for rendering the whole climactic episode with such unflinching, unjudgemental power. There are no victims and no perpetrators here: people collide and shit surely happens. There are some great dialogue exchanges and lines in the film that don’t try to hard to ingratiate themselves or make forced commentary, as can be the case too often with kitchen-sink cinema. ‘I like you, I’ll kill you last.’ ‘I’ve got the number for Childline, if you want it?’ And, during an embrace, ‘I hate you!’ ‘I hate you too!’ All such exchanges just hang there, as much humorous as pointed, perfectly believable and extremely affecting. Fish Tank is a picaresque, a sequence of scrapes, a drably electric nightmare, with our vantage point, Mia, ducking and diving and ducking in-and-out of dives with clenched fists. Arnold throws her into various scenarios almost as though to record her ability to repel all-comers, accusatory finger gleefuly poised on her self-destruct button. Her combustibility is never more than a fraction beneath the surface, and anyone and everyone seems likely to fuel it any given moment. Equilibrium is an impossibility and hope is drowning in pint dregs. Yet, and testament to the brilliance of the young star, she is easy to empathise with, despite her snapshot irascibility. When we see beyond the vitriol, there’s a lot to like, and for such a previously unbeknownst first-timer to imbue Mia with such depth is remarkable. We know her dreams of becoming a dancer are likely a pipedream but we want her to make it anyway. She is driven, but to where? Right to the upper echelons of British cinema, if nowhere else.

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