If you only know England from "Marry Poppins" and Guy Ritchie films than you will be in shock from the poverty-ridden, bleak streets of Essex as it is depicted in director Andrea Arnold's brilliant new film, "Fish Tank." The film, which won the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, is a wonderful gem of a movie that will open your eyes to another culture but at the same time show you a mirror to your own life that you can easily recognize and relate too. Rather than the "Jolly Ole' England" we have seen in some films or even the glorified, brutal underworld of England that is seen in Ritchie's movies, Fish Tank offers us a very simple story in this bleak world that really becomes a character study of a man and a young woman and the different fascists of their relationship. What makes the film work, beyond an original script and good directing, are the absolutely transcending performances by the films leads Michael Fassbender and newcomer Katie Jarvis who makes one hell of a debut performances in this film.
While the film deals with many taboo subjects it does it in such a gentle and tasteful manner that it really surprises you when it happens. Because Jarvis is so likable, not her character per say but her performance, we as an audience are really able to get into her character and follow her on this journey. Since we see the film through her child-like eyes, all of her triumphs, tragedies and emotions are instantly felt and understood by the audience. Fassbender gives a mysterious and hypnotic performance in this film and just adds to the fine reputation the actor has begun to get over the past few years. I would be shocked if Michael Fassbender didn't become as big of a household name in the next few years as Gerard Butler or Daniel Craig have recently, he's that good! While, Fish Tank might be the debut for Jarvis, it could be Fassbender's wake-up call to Hollywood. After his breakout-performance in Zach Snyder's "300" in 2007 Fassbender has been on the eye of every casting director in around but it was his outstanding performance last summer in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglorious Basterds" that sent his star into orbit. The actor's career is definitely on the rise as he has already shot a role as the villain opposite James Brolin and Megan Fox in this summer's adaptation of DC Comics' western anti-hero, "Jonah Hex." But I believe it is his strong, quiet and commanding performance in Fish Tank that will let people know that he is the real-deal and has the acting-chops to prove it.
The film begins by introducing us to the bleak, dark and cold streets of Essex, England. We soon meet Mia (Jarvis), a volatile fifteen year-old who is often in trouble with the law and is an outcast at school. Her only love is for British Hip-Hop and urban dancing, which she practices in a deserted building near her home. Mia lives with her Mom Joanne, excellently played by Kierston Wareing, and her little sister Tyler played by the young Rebecca Griffiths, in another excellent performance. Joanne had the girls while she was young and in a brilliant scene early in the film Wareing gets that attitude across to the audience perfectly without hardly saying a word. While Joanne loves her girls she is also frustrated with Mia's teenage-attitude and with her own failure at finding love. Joanne is a former-party girl who longs to be the center of attention again. Enter Connor, played by Fassbender. When Joanne invites him to a party at her flat, Mia and Tyler have a chance to meet him for the first time.
While Connor is charming and appears to want to be a father figure to the two children he also butts heads with Mia who has no interest in getting to know her Mother's new boyfriend. As Connor makes it more and more apparent that he plans to stay, he grows to be a father figure and much more to Mia. He encourages her to enter in a hip-hop dance contest and even helps her with her routine. As their relationship grows it begins to change and becomes something more. The innocent flirtations lead to something shockingly real that changes both Connor and Mia's lives forever. As Connor runs from what he has done, Mia begins to investigate just who Connor is and discovers some shocking truths that she did not expect. Mia takes even more shocking steps when she commits a crime that could not only endanger someone's life but could also bring Connor's life crashing down on him. In the end Mia must come to terms with what happened and reconcile with her Mother in order to grow as a person and move on with her life.
Although I alluded to it, I didn't want to give away too much of what happens between Connor and Mia, even though by now you can probably guess. But here is the thing, it is really quite shocking and uncomfortable when the inevitable does happen and that is quite refreshing. The film does an excellent job of dismissing the idea that it could happen early on so when it does you are as shocked and as uncomfortable as possible and at the same time the film handles it with a tasteful grace. If I were to compare this film to "An Education," a film from last year that is getting a lot of Oscar attention and also deals with a young girl and an older man having an affair in England, I would say that the difference is that in Fish Tank the repercussions are dealt with in a real-world way as apposed to "An Education" that almost handles it through rose-colored-glasses. Let's be honest, we are dealing with pedophilia here and these should not be likable characters. Where Peter Sarsgaard was a charming almost smarmy character, like a reptile on the hunt, you feel for Fassbender as a guy who just let his emotions get the better of him and made a mistake. That's the talent of Fassbender, the script and the director at work making this on-the-surface reprehensible character a very likable fellow so that you actually feel for him in the end. In fact it is Mia that really commits the larger sin at the end, one that she tries to repent for.
Writer/director Andrea Arnold really ties her script together well and paints such a heart-breaking, beautiful tone with her camera and the mood she sets in the film. You really begin to understand this place, Essex, and the people around it. You can relate to these characters even if you've never stepped foot in an English flat before in your life. I must say that I found the urban hip-hop aspect of the film fascinating as well. I'm barely familiar with American hip-hop, not to mention, English hip-hop so for me that was a fascinating part of the film. You really understand Mia's love for it and why she feels that it is her only hope for survival, which makes it more heartbreaking when she is at the "dance-competition," which turns out to hardly be that. In the end it is really the performance of Jarvis and Fassbender that make this film work. I can't say enough about how good these two are together. Jarvis gives an amazing performance for a first time actress and is one actor to keep an eye on in the future. As for Fassbender, I think he's one actor that will be around for a long time and this film proves it. If you liked him in "Inglorious Basterds" then go see Fish Tank and you'll understand just why Tarantino hired him.