I’ve been to FACT to see the new Andrea Arnold film, Fish Tank. What a stunning work! Difficult and disturbing viewing, certainly, and a film as hard as nails; yet, also a profound and deeply humane one. Having seen Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher for the second time the other night, it was interesting to compare the two films: both observe people whose lives are confined and spiritually impoverished; both present us with families and communities that are fractured, anesthetized by drink, drugs, TV and sex; both contain elegiac images that transcend their surroundings and offer some hope. Yet there the similarities end: the protagonist in Fish Tank, unlike the boy in Ratcatcher, is a 15-year old girl full of rage and anger and with an unconcious urge to break the chains that bind her. This is an astonishing first performance from Katie Jarvis, a 17-year-old unemployed school-leaver talent-spotted on an Essex platform rowing with her boyfriend.
This film does not patronise or sentimentalise its subjects. Mia is a teenager who swings from foul-mouthed aggression to moments of tenderness and affection that suggest depths of feeling. Trapped and unloved, she finds release in practising dance moves in an empty flat and is drawn to the father-figure of her mum’s new boyfriend. In Ratcatcher the image of the corn field on the fringes of the city represented escape; here, it’s Mia’s attempts to free a scrawny horse chained in a yard.
In The Observer, Philip French wrote:
The tone of Arnold’s work is far removed from the British New Wave films of the 1960s, lacking that sense of hope and belief in the essential decency of the working classes found in films such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, though it contains in an inchoate form their anger and defiance.
I agree that the film offers little basis for believing in the essential decency of the working classes, but would reject the notion that there is no hope here. The film ends touchingly with a scene where Mia has decided to act to avoid the fate the authorities have mapped out for her by leaving. She watches her mum making faltering dance moves in an alcholic stupor, then, in a near-wordless, unsentimental moment of family intimacy, she and her younger sister join in, dancing to a NAS rap that states, life’s a bitch and then you die – that’s why we get high.
And the wind had it’s way with her hair.
And the blues had a way with her smile.
And she had a way of her own.
Like prisoners have a way with a file.
She ain’t goin’ nowhere, she’s just leavin’.
She ain’t goin’ nowhere she can’t breathe in.
And she ain’t goin’ home, and that’s for sure.
Both Andrea Arnold’s films – Red Road and Fish Tank – have won the Jury Prize at Cannes, in 2006 and 2009 respectively.