Andrea Arnold's follow-up to her acclaimed Red Road (2006), follows also in the footsteps of Alan Clarke, director of films and BBC plays, whose influence has spread out in strange ways since his untimely death in 1990.
The biggest clue in Fish Tank is the roving camera, following teen protagonist Mia (Katie Jarvis, a precocious and committed performance) through her council estate ghetto in relentless long takes. This style, honed by Clarke in late works such as the influential Elephant, a minimalistlitany of homicides(Gus Van Sant's namesake tragedy is one of the most interesting and intelligent responses to Clarke's work), is the perfect analogue for his insistently truthful, unsparing vision. Never sentimentalizing, and never backing down from the most awful confrontations, Clarke left a high bar for his eager followers to vault.
Filming in the old-fashioned TV ratio of 1:1.33, as Clarke often did, Arnold and her regular DP Robbie Ryan deprive us of most of our peripheral vision as they sweep along with their dynamic lead actress. It feels like any moment a truck might blast into frame and kill her, or us. Since social realism's characters are particularly vulnerable to the hammer-blows of an indifferent society, this possibility doesn't seem that unlikely, and it imparts a nervy edge to even the longest longueurs.
Unfortunately, the stylistic analogue for Arnold's story is her tendency to abandon her chosen aesthetic in moments of doubt, where she falls back on default patterns of filmmaking. Since the aggressive and neglected Mia has a secret dream to be a dancer, we see her rehearse her hip-hop moves several times in the film, and Arnold breaks the flow of the dance with unnecessary cuts to feet and face, rarely pulling back far enough for us to actually see what the girl is doing. An invasion of the MTV approach, mercifully watered down, but absolutely fatal to the stern observational style showcased elsewhere. And the fracturing of the scene certainly doesn't help the audience experience Mia's pleasure in movement: by obscuring the dance, Arnold robs us of that joy. (She has a considerable challenge to overcome by filming all the dances in the confined spaces of tower block flats, but a few all-too brief wide angles demonstrate the possibility of achieving sustained takes in head-to-toe long-shots, even in these boxy little interiors.)
This backing away from a fully-developed style is mirrored in the story, which meanders towards tragedy and then ducks out at the last minute, serving up a Hollywood happy ending more redolent of the 1940s than anything in the New British Cinema of Richardson and Anderson, let alone Clarke's bleak vision. It's pleasing to see things work out for Mia, who is a lot more soft-centered than her introductory head-butt scene would suggest, but is this resolution credible?
Like Red Road, Fish Tank becomes a tale of revenge, in which a betrayed Mia risks everything to get back at the man who has exploited her. There's genuine tension in the scenes of child endangerment, and the suspicion that Arnold will opt out of seeing her plot through to its logical conclusion (Red Road likewise takes the gentle way out) does not predominate: a real tragedy seems possible. But perhaps there's a feeling that audiences are tired of British naturalist cinema diving into despair? But how else can the genre (for it is a genre, with its own, particularly rigid conventions) signal a demand for social change without a downbeat ending to send the public out angry? Fish Tank is an honorable attempt to sugar the pill without diluting the medicine, but it fails. It's heart isn't in it. For all the realist shouting and swearing, it's almost as if there's a fear of conflict and negativity.
"It's a poor sort of art that doesn't seek to change the world," argued Lindsay Anderson. It's not quite clear if that's Fish Tank's goal. But the film doesn't have Clarke's unflinching determination to show the world.