‘Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that.’ Protestant preacher, author and progenitor of the theory of positive thinking Dr Norman Vincent Peale wrote that. Despite being set on a housing estate (or ‘scheme’ as we like to say in Scotland) and despite its raw naturalistic style, Fish Tank shares the same sentiment.
Andrea Arnold’s remarkable second feature, following her Glasgow-based debut Red Road, is about Mia (Katie Jarvis), an angry and aggressive 15-year-old who wants to be a dancer. When she’s not practicing in her room in the flat she lives in with her single mum (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister on a sprawling Essex council estate, she’s harassing local girls and gypsies. A friendship with young horse owner Kyle (Harry Treadaway) develops, but it is her mother’s new boyfriend, the confident and seemingly kind Connor (Michael Fassbender), to whom she finds herself inexplicably drawn, with disastrous results.
Soaked in the influence of Robert Besson’s 1967 bucolic ‘every girl’ drama Mouchette and Luis Buñuel’s 1950 social surrealism masterpiece Los Olvidados (set in Mexico City’s slums), Fish Tank is an all-too-rare piece of work. Arnold’s gift for ugliness and beauty in juxtaposition places her in a league of her own (among living directors, anyway) and though comparisons to the Dardenne brothers’ peculiar brand of punishing modern realism are mildly relevant, Arnold’s film actually hails from - and is a mutation of - a very British strand of cinematic verisimilitude that reaches back to earliest films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke.
Newcomer Jarvis (see profile) is the furious, unsentimental, beating heart of the film, but it is Fassbender who steals the show - after stellar performances in Hunger and Inglourious Basterds - as the object of Mia’s obsessions. Fish Tank is a brilliantly displaced portrait of our underclass, one that asks us not to moralise but to find beauty in the consumptive. It’s also the best British film to come out for a long time. Miss at your peril. Let’s dance.
Selected release from Fri 11 Sep.