30/03/17: Fish Tank (2009)
Column: Collected Works: Film


Fish Tank
directed by Andrea Arnold
Feature film

View a still from the film


Mia is an impulsive fifteen-year-old girl who lives on a London council estate, jostling with her foul-mouthed, tweenage sister and her party-animal mother. When she isn’t wandering about aimlessly or picking fights, she withdraws to the top of her tower block to dance, to practise the act of escapism. While taking a breather, she peers out of the window, considering the world on the other side of the glass. Although she may not know it yet, she longs to break out. Big fish, small tank.

Low-key formal cues belie Mia’s bullish demeanour, revealing her sensitivity to hope. When she first encounters Conor, her mother’s new boyfriend, the lighting is soft and warm. He jokes, shirtless, as the camera lingers in loose focus on his musculature. Later, a deceptive shot suggests that the pair’s facial profiles, in reality a metre apart, are in close proximity. The ambiguity and visual haziness invite the viewer to reconsider Conor’s blurred role as rescuer, underlining the opacity of his agenda.

In the pivotal scene that gives Fish Tank its name, Conor shows Mia how to ‘noodle’, to catch fish barehanded. This is one of the film’s many instances of entrapment. Elsewhere, a horse is chained up next to a caravan. Clothes are torn on a barbed wire fence. A trespasser enters a family home and urinates on the carpeted floor. Where there is liberation, it is neither painless nor permanent. Conor may have made Mia acutely aware of life inside the fish tank, but can he provide a way out?

In a late moment of uncharacteristic solidarity, Mia and her mother dance together to Nas’ ‘Life’s a Bitch’, each mirroring the other’s actions in mutual understanding. The quiet acceptance and familial spontaneity lend the film’s final scenes a sense of fragile calm. Fish Tank’s closing image, of a car exiting the estate as a balloon drifts to the heavens, reassures us that Mia’s bottled-up optimism is not all in vain. Set loose, escaping the confines of her enclosure, she may be free to swim into uncharted territory.

Words by Elizabeth Brown & John Wadsworth


More to discoverYou can watch the official trailer here, and read interviews with Andrea Arnold and the cast on Michael Fassbender's website, here. Articles on the film include a post about girlhood by Kim Morgan for Sunset Gun, and another about landscape and limbo by Gillie Collins for The Seventh Row. You can also see Catherine Grant's video essay, 'UN/CONTAINED'.


Today's question: Which films from 2009 would you recommend, and why? Let us know on Facebook, Patreon, or Twitter.

A Prophet, a film directed by Jacques Audiard. Dank, dimly lit prison walls provide an incubator for crime organised from the inside. ()

– Elizabeth Brown, Silent Frame's Deputy Editor