Fish Tank, new on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection, is a 2009 British film written and directed by Andrea Arnold. The story concerns an underprivileged, uneducated teenage girl struggling to find greater meaning in her life. Her name is Mia Williams and she lives in a housing project with her younger sister and negligent mother. She’s angry, inarticulate, and prone to violence. But she is not without goals. A self-taught hip-hop dancer, Mia dreams of performing as part of a dance troupe.
Before you envision an uplifting Billy Elliot-style feel good movie, know that Fish Tank isn’t really about dancing. Mia (Katie Jarvis) is a modestly talented beginner at best. Despite earnest practice sessions in a vacant apartment, she doesn’t have any opportunities to train properly. With a disinterested mother (Kierston Wareing) who is more concerned with partying than parenting, Mia has no one to help her discover opportunities. Her home life changes when her mother starts dating Connor (Michael Fassbender). Connor encourages Mia to pursue her dancing interest, boosting her confidence as she plans to attend an open audition.
The sexually naive Mia is confused by the mixed messages being sent by Connor, whose interest in her is clearly not strictly paternal. He lives for a brief spell with the Williams family, representing sort of a father figure to Mia and her sister Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths). Unfortunately his influence drifts from positive to destructive and he attempts to abruptly return to his normal life. Nothing in Mia’s life seems to go her way. With no one to turn to, she begins a tentative relationship with a local squatter named Billy (Harry Treadaway) who lives in a trailer and keeps an underfed horse chained on a concrete lot.
The cast of Fish Tank does wonders with their roles, especially the highly lauded Katie Jarvis in her debut role. Jarvis makes Mia’s anger at – and distrust of – the world around her believable. Her performance is a fine example of restrained understatement. No matter what choices Mia makes, and she does make some baffling ones, Jarvis always manages to keep her sympathetic. Kierston Wareing is given little to do, which makes sense considering the story is told entirely from Mia’s perspective, but effectively projects an air of bitter indifference towards her children mixed with a hint of jealousy. The most striking supporting performance comes from Rebecca Griffiths. As Mia’s little sister Tyler, Griffiths offers an utterly convincing portrayal of a foul-mouthed, uncouth child. Yet she also displays tenderness in a heartbreaking moment with her sister near the film’s end.
Criterion presents Fish Tank on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition, framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1. I’m not sure why Arnold chose not to frame her film in widescreen. It does result in the loss of a cinematic feel, but the image itself is excellent. So clean is the visual presentation, I wondered if it was shot on digital video. But the Criterion Collection booklet states the transfer was done using the original 35mm camera negative. The film is surprising colorful and brightly lit, considering the subject matter and slummy locations. Fine detail, from a festering cut on Mia’s ankle to the protruding ribs of the underfed horse, is vivid throughout.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is absolutely unremarkable. Given the near documentary-style realism of the film, the audio is basically very ordinary. It sounds fine, with clear and centered dialogue, mixed at an appropriate level. The movie is loaded with diagetic music, which always sounds like it’s coming from whatever the onscreen source is. There is no original score. The hip-hop tunes don’t impress in terms of surround activity, but rather approximate the home stereos they’re being played on. Music emanates from cheap speakers, car stereos, or is sometimes muffled as it’s heard from another room. The sound design is simple but never a problem.
Criterion’s edition of Fish Tank has been supplemented with several interesting features. There is an interview in which actress Kierston Wareing discusses her experience making the film. Michael Fassbender is heard in a lengthy audio-only interview. Of most value are three short films by Andrea Arnold, one of which (Wasp) won the 2003 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film. These early works (which also include Milk from 1998 and Dog from 2001) contain traces of themes that would be explored more effectively in Fish Tank, albeit with less heavy-handed symbolism.
Fish Tank is a quietly effective character study. The Criterion Collection has done an excellent job of presenting the film on Blu-ray.