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Hooked on a grim and gritty tale of despair

ABOUT a million light years from the cosseted corridors of Vogue in The September Issue is the unlovely Essex council estate where Fish Tank is set.

DO NOT REUSE PIC: A scene from the movie Fish Tank
DO NOT REUSE PIC: A scene from the movie Fish Tank

Certificate: 15

Running time: 2hrs 2mins

Starring: Katie Jarvis

Director: Andrea Arnold

ABOUT a million light years from the cosseted corridors of Vogue in The September Issue is the unlovely Essex council estate where Fish Tank is set.

It’s difficult to understand how the spirits can ever soar in a place like this, although it’s as authentically British as the things the tourists come to see – the castles, the cottages and the national parks.

Andrea Arnold, who once presented a 1980s children’s TV show called No. 73 with Sandi Toksvig, has emerged as a director in the mould of Ken Loach.

She puts actors and untrained ‘real’ people in her films, prefers improvisation to scripts and sets her stories in gritty locations.

She won an Oscar for a short film called Wasp and made waves with her second, Red Road, which won her a Bafta for Best Newcomer in 2007.

Fish Tank won the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival this year and opens at the Tyneside Cinema today on a wave of expectation.

We meet 15-year-old Essex girl Mia Williams who has just woken up and is on her mobile. “Kayleigh, ‘s’may. Wha’s going on?”

We never meet Kayleigh. Mia chucks some gravel up at a neighbour’s flat, swears at the fat man who comes to the window, sneers at some other teenagers who are dancing badly and then head butts one of them.

Track-suited Mia (played by newcomer Katie Jarvis, who was talented spotted at a railway station) lives with younger sister Sophie and a mother who appears to wish neither of them were there.

Mum parties drunkenly with her mates in the kitchen while the girls are banished upstairs.

Mia, who is excluded from school, takes cheap booze into an empty flat and dances – tentatively, exploratively –- to hip-hop music. It’s her recreation, her release.

Watching Fish Tank is a bitter-sweet experience. Mia and her sister live in a place they’d be better off out of, immersed in a booze culture with a self-absorbed and neglectful mother. The estate is, indeed, a fish tank.

Even when Mia does get out, striding purposefully through a dispiriting urban hinterland, it doesn’t take her anywhere better.

She is drawn to a skinny Gypsy horse tethered forlornly in a concrete van park. It reveals a tender streak in the girl, but her concern for the animal gets her into bother.

One day mum Joanne (played by Kierston Wareing, who also starred in Ken Loach’s It’s A Free World) brings home Connor, a cheery Irishman who works as a security guard at a DIY superstore. As well as sleeping and boozing with their mum, Connor takes a fatherly interest in the girls. He takes the whole family on a bizarre outing to a river where they catch a fish.

Played by Michael Fassbender (excellent as Bobby Sands in the film Hunger), you really want Connor to provide a way out of the fish tank for Mia and Sophie.

Nothing’s ever that simple, though, is it?

I watched Fish Tank almost through my hands, hoping for the best but always expecting the worst.

Dance is Mia’s salvation but this is no Billy Elliott. There is no fairytale ending – although there is hope.

It did the business for me. I had a lump in my throat because the story rings true and, amid the grimness, there are glimmers of human goodness, notably in Mia who seems desperate for simple things like support and encouragement – worth more than any voguish fur coat.

David Whetstone

 

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