With its Screening Women programme in the lead-up to International Women’s day, Tyneside Cinema has been raising awareness about gender issues through the medium of film in co-operation with Northumbria University and the Tyneside Rape Crisis Centre, a charity independent of the police offering free and confidential support for survivors of sexual abuse. The organisers of this initiative gave a brief introduction to Fish Tank, the latest in the Screening Women series, and hosted an interesting discussion with the audience after the film, which I must credit some of my insights to.
Fish Tank is a coming-of-age drama that follows Mia (Katie Jarvis), a rebellious 15 year old coping with dysfunctional family life exacerbated by the entry of her mother’s new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender), all while trying to pursue her passion for dancing. The film is a semi-autobiographical work as writer and director Andrea Arnold grew up on an Essex council estate as well and pursued a career in dance. Without spoiling too much, the film mostly consists of slice-of-life scenes concerning Mia’s day-to-day routine, with some climactic drama regarding her relations with Connor, a potential father figure who in fact proceeds to groom her.
"It's semi-autobiographical as writer and director Andrea Arnold grew up on an Essex council estate"
The film follows Mia quite literally; Fish Tank’s gritty British realist aesthetic is comprised of long shaky tracking shots emphasising the viewer’s sense of Mia’s journey as she walks through the decaying rural-urban landscape. The film is realistic both aesthetically and in its script and acting – the dialogue feels incredibly natural, and passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. Fassbender remarked in an interview that Katie Jarvis didn’t have to act; the casting director recruited her despite having no acting experience after witnessing her having a heated argument with her boyfriend on a train. This realism is true of the whole cast. The result of all this is a story that doesn’t feel hyperbolically cinematic or scripted but rather very real.
Fish Tank explores gender, youth, sexuality, and consent within its candid slice-of-life portrayal of poverty in working class England and the wide-ranging social issues intrinsic to it. Fish Tank’s main achievement is that it explores complex themes and characters without spelling things out or forcing certain narratives on the viewer – something few filmmakers accomplish. It’s melancholy and poignant, but not overpoweringly preachy or depressing. Overall, Fish Tank is a level-headed intersectional exploration of a range of themes through an emotional story that many viewers will be able to relate to in one way or another.