Having lived in England for a couple of years, I met far too many young women who were headed down the same self-destructive path as Mia (Katie Jarvis). At the age of 15 Mia deals with a constant stream of verbal abuse and neglect from her mother. She boozes like a seasoned drinking veteran, and appears to not care about anything other than hip-hop dancing and acting tough on the streets.
Mia lives in a public housing project on the outskirts of Essex. She lives there with her mother who looks far too young to have a 15 year-old daughter. She was probably Mia's age when she had her. Her mother has already tumbled down the slippery slope, and Mia is hell-bent on following her.
It's near depressing watching Mia spiral downward without any sort of light at the end of her long dark tunnel. She has dancing, which she's pretty good at, but that's about it. The rest of her life is fraught with the reality that she'll either end up with alcohol poisoning, being homeless, or both. It's a fair comparison to say the movie plays out like a much more grittier version of 'An Education'.
Mia's days consist of walking around the bleak city surroundings looking for something to do. Her anger usually gets the best of her as she bashes one girl's eye in and tries to fruitlessly free a horse that's been tied up in a nearly empty trailer park lot.
One day Mia's mother brings home a new boyfriend named Connor. Connor is, for the most part, a positive influence in Mia's life. He breaks her usual cycle and takes her, her sister Tyler and her mother out for a drive one day. They walk out to a small river, and Mia and Connor wade in the shallow waters. It's a foreign place for Mia, but she isn't afraid. She learns that she's able to try and experience new things and not just settle for the same old stuff day after day.
Director Andrea Arnold never leaves Mia's side. This is a first-person adventure through Mia's eyes. Arnold's direction is ambiguous at best as she never clearly defines the reasoning behind Mia's behavior. Instead we simply observe her actions and the we're left to guess what exactly they mean, or if they actually mean anything. That's what makes Arnold's handling of this story so brilliant. We care about Mia because she's dreadfully underprivileged, but on the other hand, she isn't a saint. Arnold doesn't shy away from the sour parts of Mia's personality, which is refreshing. She never manipulates us into thinking one way or the other. The movie simply says, "Here is a troubled girl. Draw your own conclusions."
Much of the film is a downer as we observe a lifestyle that leads nowhere but down. Still, there is some hope here too. The last two scenes offer a simple yet beautiful catharsis. Mia's last dance with her mother is unexpectedly endearing. Her thoughtful goodbye to her sister is even more so. Even though Mia is so rough around the edges, deep down she yearns for something more. Some sort of human interaction that will help her overcome the numerous obstacles that stand in her way.
The weight of the film lands squarely on newcomer Katie Jarvis' shoulders. She produces a believable and at times heart-wrenching performance. Arnold discovered Jarvis at a train station, but you would think that she'd been acting her entire life. Her performance is stunningly candid.
I suspect the title 'Fish Tank' refers to the seemingly inescapable predicament that girls like Mia are trapped in. Within their own environment they feel as if they're flourishing, and living life to the fullest when in reality there's so much more to be experienced outside those glass walls.
The Disc: Vital Stats
'Fish Tank' comes packaged in the standard Criterion clear keepcase with number 553 on the spine. The film is housed on a 50GB Blu-ray Disc and is accompanied by an 18-page booklet that includes an essay from film scholar Ian Christie. The booklet also includes some great still photography from the movie.
Like so many Criterion Blu-ray releases, 'Fish Tank' is another example of near flawless video perfection. The booklet that's been included states that this transfer was personally overseen by Arnold herself, and has been approved by her. So, what you're getting here is the true director's intent.
'Fish Tank' is presented in 1080p with 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Clarity in fine detail is striking as up-close-and-personal shots of the movie's characters reveal even the tiniest facial blemishes. The movie is full of stunning photography. From the drabness of the public housing projects to the simple beauty of the English countryside, everything here is effortlessly displayed.
Colors are arresting. The browns and grays of the housing estate are juxtaposed nicely with the rich greens and earthy tones of the surrounding countryside. Fine detail is nicely rendered. As a fish lies motionless on the ground, gasping for oxygen, each one of its scales are perfectly defined. It's really a stunning shot in its simplicity. Blacks are deep and inky. There are times that produce negligible crushing, but it doesn't detract from the film at all. For the most part delineation adds a striking depth to the overall picture.
This is a pristinely clean transfer. I didn't notice any technical flubs. A black mesh top that Mia consistently wears causes some slight shimmering, but that's about it. The rest of the transfer is free and clear of any technical artifacts. Criterion has done a masterful job at preserving the director's original intent, all the while leaving us with a stellar looking Blu-ray video presentation.
'Fish Tank' comes with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. This is a talky film with heavy accents, so it's nice that dialogue is presented clearly without ever getting lost in the fray. Directionality works well as distant voices of children playing or people yelling can be heard while they're off screen adding to an encompassing feeling. The rear channels are pretty reserved even in the busier scenes, but do add some quiet ambient sound to keep you in the mood.
LFE isn't constant and really only pops up when a hip-hop number is played for Mia to dance to. Even then it's very light bass as the music doesn't fill the soundtrack and instead blares from Mia's ratty old portable speakers. This is a subtle mix that won't really knock you off your feet, but it's solidly adequate and delivers a delicate punch.
Criterion usually excels in the supplements department, but the exclusion of a director commentary here seems unforgivable. I don't know the circumstances surrounding the release of 'Fish Tank' by Criterion, but I really wish they could have included a commentary on this disc. I think this supplemental package would have benefited greatly by having Arnold comment on the movie, her directing style, and what is going on in Mia's head.
Quite a few parallels can be drawn from 'Fish Tank' and 'An Education.' Both feature a young girl trying to find herself, and an older man who takes advantage. 'Fish Tank,' however, is more stark and unflinching in its portrayal of urban life in England. Katie Jarvis' performance is a revelation, and I'm certain we'll be seeing her in other films in the near future. Perhaps the real brilliance of Arnold's vision is that she never feels she has to come right out and explain why Mia is the way she is or why she does the things she does. Instead, she allows us to be a silent observer, and make up our own minds. Mia, along with all the other characters on display here, is decidedly human. Not good or bad, just real, and flawed.
Criterion rolls out a nearly pristine transfer accompanied by a solid audio mix. The features, while beefy in length thanks to the inclusion of Arnold's three short films seems lacking without a commentary. In the end though, Criterion fans and collectors will be happy with another great release from the studio. This one comes recommended.