Long ago, I tired of the brand of grim UK working-class realist cinema that Mike Leigh and lesser directors have built their careers on. I loved Leigh’s early movies, kicking off with High Hopes, which were original and courageous in their uncompromisingly honest depiction of battling working class Brits at the bottom of the social hierarchy – the Untouchables of the despicable English caste system. Leigh brought an undeniable humanity to his films that surfaced in the moments of humour, affection and dignity his characters somehow salvaged from the squalor and degradation of their mostly bleak existences. Their small personal victories were profoundly moving, and a vital counterbalance to the oppressive bleakness of their physical and human environment.
Leigh’s early movies fed off the energy of a barely suppressed rage that had to derive from his identification with his characters and their situations. His films were an indignant and compelling defence of the values, choices and no-choices of his characters, and a raised middle finger to the privileged classes. Stirring stuff in the beginning.
A few Leigh movies down the track, though, his directorial style and socio-political fixations began to pall for me. When other less talented directors jumped on the bandwagon such that the Leigh brand of UK social realism became a genre unto itself, I put the blinkers on.
Enough, I lamented! Enough of foul-mouthed, ill-spoken, ill-tempered, uneducated, down-in-the mouth Pommy yobs living in council tower blocks against an eternal backdrop of leaden skies and industrial landscapes…and enough of directors whose films were driven by predictable leftist agendas. My gripe wasn’t ideological; it was simply that I find overt political messaging in films (in all art, for that matter) tedious and annoying, and had tired of the repetitive themes that ran through the work of Leigh and company.
Fish Tank springs from the bleak social realist UK cinematic tradition of Mike Leigh et al, but to impose that sort of categorisation on this indie gem would be selling it way short. Writer/director Andrea Arnold is not on a soapbox, and her movie is not a vehicle for a personal ideologically driven agenda. Arnold has given her characters free reign to be themselves, and in so doing has imbued her film and its narrative with a stunning sense of authenticity. Realism does not get any more ‘realistic’ than this!
What do I mean? Apart from the obvious – that the characters, their situations and the world of the movie are compellingly believable – there is an organic quality to the film, a sense that its trajectory is its own, somehow independent of any conscious awareness on the part of the writer/director of the conventions of dramatic form. Much is ambivalent – contradictory, even – about the characters and their motivations. It is refreshing to be left to one’s own interpretations, rather than spoonfed.
Take the title of the movie.
On one hand, it speaks to the position of the audience as voyeurs, watching a realist drama through the aquarium of the screen. On the other, it refers to the perspective of the lead character, teen misfit Mia. Cooped up inside her small room in her mother’s apartment, she dances to hip hop while gazing out the window on a spoiled world from which she feels alienated, yet which somehow pulses with promise as she fantasizes about a career as a professional dancer.
On the face of it, this sounds hokey and sentimental – it is anything but!
Mia is hard-bitten, cynical, ostracised from friends, full of angst and rage that turns violent without much provocation. Her naïve (and probably doomed) professional dancing dream is just one of many instances of seemingly contradictory qualities of character dwelling in perfect harmony…as is the case with all of us. How rare it is, though, for art to imitate life so convincingly, so assuredly as it does here.
It is, of course, an illusion that the director has abandoned herself to some mystical organic process of film-making while paying no heed to dramatic convention. Arnold knows exactly what she’s doing, and is very much in control of her work. She manipulates her medium masterfully, in fact.
Her building of sexual tension between 15-year-old Mia and her mother’s new 30-something boyfriend, for example, is quite extraordinary. This is one of the most erotically charged movies I have seen. Indeed, any default judgment we might make on the morality of a mature man seducing an under-age girl is thrown way off balance, since we understand – from both sides – how such a transgression might occur.
This blurring, this undermining of expectation and stereotype, precludes any easy labelling of Arnold’s characters. Which is just how realist drama should be, and seldom is.
I have to hurry this up. Obligation and duty calls. But before I leave off, I must make special mention of the emotionally volcanic performance of Katie Jarvis as Mia. Apparently Arnold approached the 17-year-old Jarvis after spotting her arguing with her boyfriend at a train station. She had never even considered acting. Incredible. Wherever she goes from here, this is one bloody great landmark of a debut.
Actually, all the acting performances are just about faultless. Is this attributable to the strength of the script (and by hell, it’s good), to the truth of the psychology of the characters, to the actors themselves, or to Arnold’s directing – well, who knows? My guess is ‘all of the above.’
Boiling with turbulent raw emotion that never tips over into sentimentality, Fish Tank is tough, tender, brutally honest and profoundly moving. Powerful stuff, and for mine, the first must-see movie of the year.
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