Fish Tank. Dir. Andrea Arnold. BBC Films. 2009.
Andrea Arnold’s British drama Fish Tank centres on a fifteen year old tearaway, Mia (Katie Jarvis), whose volatile and distant nature promises to drag her down the same path as her alcoholic, chain-smoking mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing). Growing up on a bleak Essex council estate, the possibility of Mia achieving her dream of escape and becoming a dancer seems incredibly low, a fact which is mirrored in the captivity of the animals kept as pets on the estate. From the caged hamster Tyler (Rebecca Griffifths), Mia’s younger sister keeps in her room to the leashed dogs on the estate that constantly lunge away from their owners, it is clear that the captivity associated with domestic living is a theme that underpins Fish Tank. Indeed, it is at home where Mia feels most caged. However, when Joanne brings a new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), into the household, he takes on a quasi-father role for the sisters, encouraging Mia’s dancing and therefore sparking a new sense of hope for her future. She pursues her dancing career as a result, but just as their relationship gradually shifts into a sexual one she discovers that Connor has a wife and young daughter of his own. Mia’s hopes for the future she envisioned are extinguished with the revelation of Connor’s deceit and the realisation that her only likely dancing career is as a stripper. The film ends with Mia leaving her mother and sister in Essex, and heading to Wales with her friend Billy (Harry Treadaway).
Fish Tank clearly sits within the genre of Social Realism, with Arnold being compared to ‘British master director’ Ken Loach. In this genre, there is a ‘rejection of beauty as an ideal in artistic representation’, as the location of the drama is the hostile and rundown world of this particular Essex council estate and the protagonists are usually jaded, often intoxicated and frequently violent. As is generic within Social Realism films, Arnold examines the ‘decay, squalor’ and ‘ugliness of the urban environment’ (Knight, p. 74), and the protagonists she presents are equally dilapidated. Mia herself is far from heroic, as she has little or no possibility of achieving her dream to become a dancer unless she succumbs to the world of sleaze. She cannot even help free a chained horse she finds on a small trailer site and despite multiple attempts, the animal is later shot; Mia is no hero. The protagonists of Social Realism films are rarely able to break the ‘constraints of their socio-cultural environments’ (Knight, p. 67), and while it could be argued that Mia does escape a potentially depressing future by driving off to Wales with Billy, what can be said for her mother, and her younger sister Tyler who are left behind? Indeed, in Social Realism films, the dreams to which the protagonists aspire are seldom realised, at least not fully, and those that do must pay a price much greater that they had anticipated. By leaving for Wales, Mia must abandon her previous life in its entirety.
While Arnold explores this ugliness of the urban environment, she does not linger on these spaces for too long, and as Connor establishes himself as the quasi-father in the Williams family, he takes them to the Essex countryside. While the landscape is not particularly sublime (they simply drive to a small green space and call at a pub on the way home), Arnold captures this location as a virtual paradise for Mia. As Tyler is overcome with excitement at the sight of the wildlife, ‘Look at the dragonfly, Mia, quick!’, Joanne displays a deep mistrust of nature, keeping her distance and complaining that Mia’s now drenched tracksuit costs ‘twenty quid you know’. It seems that this is the first time the family have been outside of their council estate to experience nature, where dragonflies take the place of dogs, and the sounds of birds replace car alarms and blasting music. In a particularly significant scene, Mia and Connor stand knee-deep in the river, as he teaches her how to noodle for fish. The scene is seductively tranquil, with only the sensual sound of the water, and the occasional audible breath disturbing the silence. For Mia at least, this scene has deep significance, as a specific moment of connection with another human being that goes further than a drunken phone call to her best friend the ‘bitch’, or a screaming session with her mother. When Connor catches the fish, there is a flurry of movement and sound once again, and the moment is over. This type of fishing requires Connor and Mia to stand a short distance apart facing each other, and Arnold shows the characters poised in a stand- off of sorts, providing an opportunity for them to have an intimate experience with one another and establish a connection. The fish, presumably swimming between them, is a symbol of their relationship. Just as each tries to silently catch the fish in this scene, so each tries to gain control of one another throughout the film; Connor by taking the authoritative role of father, and Mia through frequent tantrums and outburst of surliness. The very act of fishing is a direct reflection of their relationship and its combination of intimacy and violence; while Mia and Connor experience genuine moments of tenderness, their connection is underpinned with agression, epitomised in the scene where Connor punches her.
During the fishing scene, the fish plays one off against the other, until finally Connor catches it, representing his possession of the control of their relationship. Arnold then keeps the camera focused on the gasping fish on the river bank for an almost uncomfortable length of time, only for Connor to kill it with a stick through its mouth. The fish is a physical reminder of Mia’s intimate experience with Connor; whether she desires him simply as a father figure or as a sexual partner at this point is left ambiguous, but the fact that their fish is left on the kitchen floor for the dog to eat is clearly a disappointment for Mia. This is to be repeated on a much larger scale later on in the film when Mia discovers Connor’s other life, complete with a wife and daughter of his own. Just as he catches the fish and seemingly forgets about it, so Connor pursues a relationship with Mia only to abandon it.
Similarly, the scene where Mia first tries to free the horse is treated with the same sense of tranquillity. Until this point, almost everything the character has said has been aggressive, but here Mia actively attempts to calm the animal and to free it from its apparent captivity. There is something about the plight of this creature that evokes an emotional response in Mia, and it becomes something of an obsession for the character as she returns to the rundown trailer park to free the animal even after being attacked by its violent human captors. Her desire to free the horse stems from her need to free herself. Indeed, Arnold ties Mia and the horse together from the first scene they encounter each other, as the animal’s grey coat is mirrored in the girl’s clothing, with her netted black top mimicking the meshed rails through which she sees the horse. Like Mia, the horse is trapped and cannot escape the restrictions placed on her.
Towards the end of the film, after Mia’s dreams of becoming a dancer are crushed and Connor’s deceit has been discovered, she goes back to the trailer park and is told that the horse has had to be shot. The shooting of the horse, however, is not shown and we only see the interior of the horse box with a bloody bullet hole through the window. With this image, I am reminded of a shot earlier in the film where Mia and Billy go to the scrap yard and come across a car that has been in a collision. The window, like that of the horse box, is cracked and a little blood and hair is still stuck there. When this image is repeated after the shooting of the horse, a feeling of finality is evoked. Like the car that crashed at some point on its course, Mia’s journey with Connor is over. Indeed, Billy tells her that the horse ‘was sixteen’ and that it was ‘her time’, and with their similarity in age, Mia is reminded that she is no longer a child. This is made all the more poignant with the fact that her father-figure, Connor, has left her. Like in Ken Loach’s Kes, the killing of the animal is equated to the death of childhood. In Kes, the death of Billy’s kestrel means an end to the escapism that she provided, and his burial of her represents a burial of his hopes for the future. All childhood innocence gone, Billy’s certain future of the coal pit looms over the ending of Loach’s film. However, Mia’s story ends rather more hopefully. While Arnold clearly ties the horse and Mia together, the animal’s death is not quite as tragic as that seen in Kes. The death of Mia’s childhood after Connor’s abandonment is what pushes her towards finally deciding to leave the estate, helping her towards the realisation that she is no longer a child and must free herself.
The animals in Fish Tank seem to embody different aspects of Mia’s nature. The dogs on the council estate are loud and hostile, often attempting to pull away from their leashes and lunging violently at passers-by, reflecting Mia’s volatile nature especially towards those she does not trust. The fish represents Mia’s potential for freedom, and remains a physical embodiment of a human connection the likes of which she has never experienced. However, the fish also comes to represent the failure of these possibilities, with its death at the hands of Connor foreshadowing the crippling disappointment that comes with the revelation of his deceit and consequential abandoning of the family. The horse, which Arnold connects visually with Mia, embodies her captivity and inability to be saved from those around her. Whether it be the well-meaning social worker who visits the flat, her perhaps not-so-well-meaning mother who tries to send her to a pupil referral unit or even Connor himself, Mia refuses to be helped. Like the animals on the estate, she is in captivity. In the opening scene, the camera follows her every move and imprisons her within the frame almost like a wildlife film. Ending with the shot of Mia looking out of the glass window, she is seen to be in some sort of human fish tank. She can see the potential outside, the fringes of the Essex council estate are visible, and the possibility of life beyond it is torturously close, but she is trapped.
Mia’s inability to protect the horse is reminiscent of the character Roslyn’s inability to save the horses in the 1961 film,The Misfits. The character, like Mia, is presented as having an affinity with animals and the free-spirited cowboy Gay, is reflected in Fish Tank with the character of Billy, who is also a traveller (indicated by his caravan). In both films, the captivity of the horses strikes a chord with the equally trapped female characters; for Roslyn, the animals’ captivity reminds her of the powerless position she holds in the group of patriarchal cowboys with whom she is living. For Mia, her inability to free the horse symbolises her powerlessness to realise her dreams. However, it is undoubtable that the bleak setting of Fish Tank and its genre of Social Realism means that the most obvious film to compare it to is Kes. In both films there is a shared theme of loss, and the deaths of the kestrel and the horse reduces the central protagonists to tears, as the killing of these animals come to represent to extinguishment of their dreams which could never have been fulfilled in their socio-cultural environments. The protagonists themselves are remarkably similar; from Billy’s disillusionment in school to Mia’s determination to constantly find a fight, both struggle to have deep relationships with humans, and therefore often make decisions that are detrimental to their own lives. Their powerlessness to preserve their dreams for the future is reflected in their powerlessness to keep their animals alive.
Further Reading References:
-Interview with the director, Andrea Arnold, and details of the unique casting of Katie Jarvis as Mia Williams:
-Kes. Ken Loach. Kestrel Films Ltd., 1969
-The Misfits. John Huston. Seven Arts Productions, 1961
Ebert, Roger, February 3, 2010, <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fish-tank-2010> [accessed 10 November 2013]
French, Philip, ‘Fish Tank’, The Guardian, 13 September 2009, <https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/sep/13/fish-tank-andrea-arnold-french> [accessed 11 November 2013]
Knight, Deborah, ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’, in Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, ed. by George McKnight (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997)
 Roger Ebert, February 3, 2010, <https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fish-tank-2010> [accessed 10 November 2013]
 Deborah Knight, ‘Naturalism, narration and critical perspective: Ken Loach and the experimental method’, in Agent of Challenge and Defiance: The Films of Ken Loach, ed. by George McKnight (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1997) p. 64