Wednesday 17 August 2011

On demand: "Fish Tank"

With the new British drama Fish Tank, we move from kitchens to the kitchen-sink. The first time we see Mia (Katie Jarvis), the 15-year-old heroine of Andrea Arnold's follow-up to 2006's startling Red Road, she's headbutting a girl who's looked at her funny, and trying to liberate a horse from a traveller camp: all in a day's work when you're the dancing queen of your Essex housing estate. Where her teenage rivals hunt in packs, Mia is a lone wolf, a ragbag of curse words, contrarian impulses and hormones whose life changes - for the better, and for the worse - when her mum brings home a new boyfriend one night.

Conor (Michael Fassbender) is a garrulous Irishman with money in his wallet - the first thing Mia checks - and his own car. Where mum - a study in casual, white-stilettoed indifference from Kierston Wareing - finds ever new ways to put her girl down, Conor takes an interest in both Mia herself and her terpsichorean aspirations. He scoops her up and puts her to bed after she's had too much to drink; he stoops to tend to her injured foot. Is he a true Prince Charming, we wonder - or is this outwardly tough yet crucially naive girl simply misreading all the signs?

It seems hardly surprising our heroine should be so pressured and confused: wisely shooting in the narrowest, most claustrophobic aspect ratio available, Arnold evokes a world of constant, aggressive sniping and backchat, pneumatic drills and sirens, passing traffic - somewhere you can barely hear yourself think. In Wareing's cramped flat, the TV appears tuned permanently to the music channels, blaring R'n'B videos from which Mia cribs her best moves, aspirational documentary shows (Cribs, My Super Sweet 16) that offer a false escape into other, better lives, and - in one extreme example - Dirty Sanchez, the sort of show only a clan this dysfunctional might consider regular family viewing.

Fish Tank leaves you in no doubt these sink estates are hard places in every sense: a location where "you prick" and "you cunt" are bandied about as terms of affection, and "I like you; I'll kill you last" can be employed as a friendly leavetaking. While Arnold, here confirming herself as one of our most observant filmmakers, isn't blind to the bad choices that lead to broken homes, she nevertheless refuses to judge her characters, and finds humour and even beauty - those qualities that might make living hereabouts marginally more bearable - amid the squalor. "I don't like her smile," Mia's foul-mouthed younger sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) proclaims, watching a televised prom-queen makeover between swigs of lager and drags on a ciggie. "She's got yellow teeth." As a show of spirit in the face of adversity, you could scarcely ask for more from the debutant Jarvis: spiky, her body forever on the defensive - braced against the possibility of attack - even as the scowl on her face yields to a default setting of troubled innocence.

Arnold previously made the shorts Dog and Wasp, and though there's no obvious sign of the titular aquarium - an underwater sound effect whenever Mia dons her headphones has to suffice - there's nonetheless quite the menagerie gathered here: that ill-fated horse ("she was sixteen; it was her time"), a canine named Tennant's, a hamster wheeling round in a cage that possibly hasn't been cleaned for several weeks, a rabbit observed on the fly in an altogether better-tended middle-class garden. As the kitty stickers and tiger murals viewed in passing in the girls' bedrooms might suggest, Mia's the wildcat in Arnold's human zoo, longing for release, her dance moves a form of pacing the cage. It's with an act of supreme directorial generosity and virtuosity that Fish Tank finally, and in a manner that seems unthinkable three-quarters of the way through its duration, sets her free.

Fish Tank is available on the BBC iPlayer until next Sunday evening.

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