In the past twelve months, we’ve been treated to plenty of pictures in which men (yes, that group of wonderful, Y chromosome-having dudes that I consider myself one of) destroy the lives of perfectly pleasant women. In An Education, our young protagonist Jenny is treated rather unfairly by her older suitor, but she finds herself all the wiser for having had the distasteful experience anyway. In Precious, our eponymous heroine is subjected by her father to the kinds of unspeakable abuse that make me want to surrender my private parts in protest (believe me, that is no small gesture – I’m rather attached to them). And in Antichrist, the soft-spoken female lead (not-so-subtly referred to as She) is subjected to years of understated psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband. She responds in the most sensible manner possible: the forcible mutilation and removal of both of their genitals.
Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank features a 15-year-old troublemaker named Mia (Katie Jarvis) that falls somewhere in between these three disparate characters – although pleasant is not the first adjective that springs to mind when attempting to describe her . She spends her days wandering around her East London council estate, breaking into property, starting fights, getting loaded and displaying a flair for imaginative swearing that would make In the Loop’s Malcolm Tucker blush with embarrassment. Her mother (Kierston Wareing) has no time for her; she’s more concerned with new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), a charming Irishman who shows a genuine interest in Mia’s life, even encouraging her aspiration to be a professional dancer. She develops a crush on him, and is not exactly private about her feelings. Neither is he. I would say spoiler alert, but you can probably guess where this relationship is heading.
What is interesting about Fish Tank is that it never stoops to judge its characters; not the angry Mia, not her drunken mother, or even the (wildly) inappropriate Connor. Arnold handles these potentially despicable characters with expert finesse, taking a leaf out of fellow countryman Shane Meadow’s playbook (the film also features a similar visual style to This is England and Somers Town). This finesse is not to be mistaken for sympathy, or even forgiveness. Arnold knows that we don’t need to be told that these characters make mistakes (some devastating); we can figure it out for ourselves.
Jarvis was spotted by Arnold having an argument with her boyfriend at a train station; a tiff that would end up seeing her cast in the film’s lead role. She is electric as Mia; genuinely surprising at every turn and vulnerable when necessary. The film pulsates along with the throbbing anger that emanates from the very fiber of her being. In the picture’s final half hour, her fury darts around like a stray bullet ricocheting from wall to wall. You cannot tear your eyes away. Michael Fassbender meanwhile is building an intriguing career for himself, playing characters that make decisions you or I never would, but still convincing us that he understands why he does them.
As a male reviewer, I have at times been accused by female readers of not understanding what it is like to be a woman, and therefore, unfit to discuss pictures about women (it should be noted that these complaints were raised when I criticised – brutally – Twilight and The Ugly Truth). And you know what? Those female readers are absolutely right. I will never understand what it is like to be a woman, considering I’m a 22-year-old male and all. Nor will I ever know what it’s like to be black, or French, or even Na’vi. But if anything can help me achieve a better understanding, it is storytelling, and in this case, it is film.
Decrying the leads of Sex and the City as ‘vapid’ does not make me anti-feminism, nor does accusing Bella from Twilight of being ‘an empty shell beholden to two abusive males’ mean I am about to write a modern update of The Female Eunuch. With that in mind, I celebrate Arnold’s Fish Tank, and specifically the depiction of her young lead. Mia is not treated like an overly clever ingénue (as in An Education) or as a pious, almost impossibly well-adjusted soul (as in Precious) or worse, as Bella Swan. She is silly, and mean, and reckless, and young. She makes terrible decisions at almost every turn, and she does indeed incite the passions of her mother’s boyfriend. But she’s achingly real and flawed. Female experience/male experience, whatever. This is about the human experience. Insignificant people leading insignificant lives, trapped in their very own inescapable fish tanks: financial, emotional, and when you look at their stifling council estate flats, literal.
Fish Tank opens in Australian cinemas May 27.