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Film review: Fish Tank

Director: Andrea Arnold.
With: Michael Fassbender, Katie Jarvis and Kierston Wareing. Released: September 11

Andrea Arnold's Red Road was one of the most acclaimed directorial debuts of the past decade. With its doughty heroine, paranoiac atmosphere, sexual charge and bleak yet beautiful depiction of life in a Glasgow tower block, it announced the arrival of a major new British writer-director—but could she pull off another film of the same calibre?

Three years on, the biggest surprise about Arnold's follow-up, Fish Tank, is that it's even more impressive than Red Road. Comparable to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh's most beloved work, with just a dash of Gregory's Girl, it could be this year's best British film.

It also introduces an iconic cinema heroine. At the centre of every scene, the 15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis, who had never acted before) is first seen roving around a tough Essex council estate, sporting a grey tracksuit and a lank ponytail, swigging from bottles of industrial-strength cider, and assaulting everyone she meets with well aimed swear words if they're lucky, or a well directed head-butt if they're not.

She's the kind of Vicky Pollard-ish teenager who would have the Daily Mail calling for the reintroduction of the death penalty—and yet she's so daring, resourceful, spirited and vulnerable that most viewers will feel the urge, as David Cameron didn't actually say, to hug a hoodie.
That sort of balance runs right through Fish Tank. On the one hand, it's a sad, disturbing portrait of a neglected, uneducated girl who lives on the brink of squalor. On the other, it's fast and energetic, almost always bathed in sunshine, and studded with more laugh-out-loud lines than most Hollywood comedies. Stories this rich, credible and unpredictable are more often the province of novels than films.

The plot shifts into gear when Mia's mother (Kierston Wareing) brings her latest boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), back to their cramped flat. An Irishman with a wolfish smile and a washboard stomach he's only too willing to display, Connor is like no man Mia and her little sister (a scene-stealing Rebecca Griffiths) have ever met.
He compliments them, he plays CDs of vintage soul music, and he even takes them for a drive out into the countryside, a place so alien to them that Mia's sister is stunned when she sees a dragonfly. "Oh my God, it's got six legs," she marvels. There's a chance that this handsome stranger could make the future much better for Mia and her family—but there are hints that he could just as easily make it much, much worse.

Nicholas Barber



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