Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #449
Number of Views: One
Release Date: 14 May 2009 (Cannes), 11 September 2009
Country of Origin: United Kingdom
Box Office: $2,000,000
Running Time: 123 minutes
Director: Andrea Arnold
Producer: Nick Laws, Kees Kasander
Screenplay: Andrea Arnold
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Score: Phonso Martin
Editing: Nicolas Chaudeurge
Studios: BBC Films, UK Film Council, Kasander Film Company
Distributor: IFC Films
Stars: Katie Jarvis, Kierston Wareing, Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway, Sydney Mary Nash, Sarah Bayes
Suggested Audio Candy
 Eric B. & Rakim “Juice (Know The Ledge)”
 Nas featuring A.Z. “Life’s a Bitch”
 Bobby Womack “California Dreamin”
Right place, right time. I shall begin my appraisal for Andrea Arnold’s sophomore full-length feature Fish Tank by telling the unlikely tale of its young star Katie Jarvis. If you’re looking for humble beginnings; then try this on for size. The seventeen-year old had never acted a lick when a talent scout spotted her locking horns with her boyfriend from opposite sides of the tracks at a train station in Tilbury, Essex. This is par for the course where Tilbury is concerned and I would imagine that anyone waiting on the platform that day rolled their eyes at what is something of an habitual occurrence. However, her spirited display earned her the attention of one particular female talent scout commuting that day and she was offered an audition for the lead role of Mia in Arnold’s feature on the strength of this outburst. At first she was skeptical and refused to offer her phone number to a complete stranger but did take down the woman’s particulars just in case. Three weeks later, curiosity got the better of her and, soon after, she landed a role which was destined to change her life forever.
I’m more than familiar with Katie’s rags to riches story as, through one degree of separation, I know only too well of her tale. For around a year, in 2011, I ran a recording studio in the heart of Grays town center, just minutes drive from the station in question. This honor fell in my lap after the previous controller lost heart in the system he had promoted for years and handed in his formal resignation. This cool cat is a gentleman known well around these parts as Lewis Clarke but seasoned Grueheads may be more aware of his pseudonym Bleeding Lotus. We are dear friends and I took the poison chalice he handed me with honor as I knew only too well of the fine work he had done with the Essex youths that had frequented his hot spot. The studio was available for any young person from the age of thirteen to nineteen to access at will; in the hope that it would afford them a creative space from within which to flourish. Local hero Clarke was the ringleader of said circus.
We fast became tighter than bullfrogs in body stockings and shared the same less than charmed viewpoint on how local government were going about making lives better in our district. Our roles were effectively in a youth worker capacity and the objective was to supply teens, particularly from local pockets of deprivation, with a voice with which to have their say. If it all sounds honorable then I assure you that our intentions absolutely were but ultimately the system failed us. Hundreds of kids accessed the studio daily as the common glue that connected them all was music. Clarke turned it into a safe haven where ingenuity was encouraged while, in the same moment, life lessons were taught. Essex is literally brimming with raw talent and every minor harbors grand designs on becoming the next discovered emcee or street dancer. It represents an escape for many from the lives they lead, not by choice, but because that’s the card they’ve been dealt. The studio became a second home to them.
During one of my long conversations with Clarke, he informed me about the inspirational story of Jarvis, a young girl who used to attend his sessions and shot to fame after a solitary act of divine intervention afforded her the fast-track to fame. Fish Tank is well-known around these parts for two reasons. Firstly, it was shot entirely on location at Rainham and Tilbury, two less-monied areas mere stops away from each other on the national rail. Secondly, the whole borough beams with pride every time her name is uttered in passing. Eventually, my contract as Media Curriculum Lead for Thurrock Borough Council was terminated after I made the frank admission to smoking cannabis during downtime to a loose-lipped associate and found myself under investigation. While not looking to glamorize my actions, I’m aware that they played a significant role in my life inexorably changing.
I recall my jury offering me one last chance to express my views before giving me the expected marching orders. My rejoinder went something like this: “Young people need somebody to be on the same level and there is nobody within this institution better equipped than I to identify with them. Yes, I’m partial to weed, and that is my own lifestyle choice and, if anything, it gives me an exclusive vantage from which to empower they make each transition securely. I’m going to lose my job today; that much I know. All I ask is this; stop patronizing these young adults, cease making promises which you do not intend to honor, listen to them and meet them on their terms instead of yours.” I knew the protocol and,true to form, I was found to present too much of a risk, and disengaged from my post accordingly. As I vacated the stuffy office with head held high and walked outside to breathe in the not-altogether fresh Grays air once more, I exhaled a great sigh of relief. While I desired nothing more than to “give something back to the community”; I could now achieve this on my own terms. I strolled to the nearest secluded spot, rolled one up, reminded myself that I was the Keeper of The Crimson Quill goddammit, and scribed my first film appraisal. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, should you be searching for perspective, then I would say there is nobody better placed to offer their take on Fish Tank and, indeed, the authenticity of Jarvis’ performance. I am more than familiar with Mia’s “type” and she echoes the same exasperation of so many girls her age, growing up on a less-monied estate. It’s survival of the fittest and one’s wits become their most treasured commodity as the meek here are far less than blessed. If you’re not considered street then you may as well remain cooped up in your poky council flat and not attempt reconnaissance. Chances are, you’ll be smoking cigarettes by ten, binge drinking soon after, and committing your first felony once inebriation kicks in. I’m generalizing, of course, but these are some of the tribulations facing a girl like Mia.
It’s simply the way; our beast’s vitriolic mannerisms are the direct result of being constantly reminded that she will never amount to squat. Her single mother Joanne, played with commendable stupor by Kierston Wareing, pays little mind to the fruit of her womb and, when she does, a swift clip around the ear reminds her who’s wearing the push-up bra. Long since disillusioned and robbed of her own childhood when impregnated at her own set of tender years, Joanne has become the product of her environment and is doing what any parent would do in such circumstances, and bestowing her child with said experience. Alcohol is the drug of choice in this oppressive household and Joanne leads from the front by knocking back industrial paint thinner at each given opportunity and spending her days over half cut. Her dreams likely now amount to bagging herself a spot on The Jeremy Kyle Show and airing her dirty laundry in public.
Joanne also has a preadolescent daughter called Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths) whose diodes are still wiring and already appears primed to follow in big sister’s foreordained footsteps. Griffiths is bang on-point and displays just the right mesh of childlike innocence and fast-progressing street wise to prep Mia for the inevitable teenage pregnancy waiting around every turn. Their exchanges are often combative, the word hate prefered to love during any displays of affection, and “cunt” thrown around willy nilly like empty governmental commitments. However, Mia is ferociously protective of Tyler and their relationship presents some of the film’s most poignant moments. In addition, Mia’s own virtue is also highlighted as she builds gentle rapport with a horse shackled within a nearby barren.
Arnold and her accomplished director of photography, Robbie Ryan, deserve tremendous kudos for the style employed in providing Mia’s viewpoint. She is penned in throughout, while anything outside her limited depth of field is blurred from focus. The intimacy this enables is paramount as she doesn’t always act with kindness, and never sets out to demand our sympathy anyway, so it would be all too easy losing patience with her resident bitterness. Arnold’s lens never strays far from her wide eyes and Jarvis provides an insight so utterly credible that we are presented with a naked depiction of both the desperation of adolescence and bloody-minded pursuit of a less involuntary existence. She loves to dance and can bust a fair move or two when left to her own devices, and the carrot dangles tantalizingly as she sets out to realize her one tangible dream.
Jarvis won numerous prestigious awards for her performance as Mia and she deserves every conceivable accolade for lending so much of herself to our urban Cinderella. When you consider that she had never before acted for camera, let alone been subjected to its compact surveillance as she confessed her soul, it is downright remarkable that she didn’t buckle. Actually, I’m the least surprised of all, as I know just how incalculable a service she provides and never stop believing that a difference can be made if the desire is strong enough to empower such an outcome. Jarvis evidently wants it. Moreover, she lives it, breathes it, literally pisses it out of her. On this evidence alone, I implore any filmmaker looking to “give something back to the community” to pay close attention to this young lady as she is a true rough diamond. More critically, I urge you to pluck a young person from pastures unprivileged, offer them hope and back that shit up, then watch what happens.
Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay Jarvis is to remind you that I haven’t even mentioned Michael Fassbender yet. This German-born and Irish-blooded cinematic ambassador is, without question, one of the most versatile actors on the planet and there is further evidence of his magnanimous gift in his turn as the initially agreeable Conor. He is involved with Joanne, to which ends remain ambiguous, and presents Mia with a male role-model she has been sorely lacking until now. Their relationship may be tumultuous at best but it also provides Mia with hope, encouragement, and ultimately desire. It is all too easy labeling Conor as a pedophile but, in truth, his advances are more down to drunken opportunism and compromised resolve.
The moment he wakes to his thoughts, he bolts faster than O.J., and returns to his alternative position of responsibility. Fassbender plays to his grey area and is charismatic enough to ensure we buy into the innocuous side of his intention. His is not a monster per se and, while his slack judgement is correctly portrayed as beyond monstrous, their inevitable unification is respectfully played and, dare I say it, somewhat tender. Conor isn’t off the hook by a long chalk and should be held in contempt for abusing his position as potential father figure. As their association reaches the only end truly perceivable, our director shifts focus once more and he blurs back into insignificance. However, his impact has been monumental.
I have been on estates eerily similar to the one which illustrates Mia’s concrete confinement and can attest that Fish Tank provides a startling likeness. I also helped gate keep a youth club in Tilbury for a number of years and saw my fair share of Mias come and go within that time. If gritty realism is your bag then you’ll be kissing asphalt after two-hours watching the world expand and constrict through her heavily made-up eyes. However, Arnold’s film also hits home on another level. Should you question the hype that surrounds young people or be one yourself and object to the way that the media perceives you, then this will back up your argument. Their environment may predict what joggers they wear, what music they are exposed to, what dialect they select when representing, but the rest is still up to them. Above all else, rare films such as this remind us all what a precious commodity belief really is. I know young people and I’m convinced that Jarvis would corroborate that one.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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