Andrea Arnold’s second film, Fish Tank, is hailed for its gritty-realism, its claustrophobic portrayal of a young girl’s life at an Essex “council estate” (or “the projects” in the U.S.). The film is heart-breaking and poignant, and a refreshing change from Hollywood movies in which rich people complain about rich people problems. Mia, the protagonist of Fish Tank, has real problems that I am thankful I don’t have to face in my
relatively cushy college girl world.
Mia’s problems, while realistic, seem to have certain overstated
qualities. You could chalk it up to Mia having to face several complications. But perhaps, Arnold wasn’t solely inspired by life at council estate. Perhaps, Arnold was consciously or unconsciously
influenced by English folk songs. I mean it’s not that crazy, she is English after all.
Mia lives in the council estate in Essex with her mother, Joanne, and younger sister, Tyler. The film leaves a lot unsaid, but it is implied that Mia has been kicked out of school, as Joanne is desperately trying to find somewhere that will take her 15-year-old “delinquent” daughter. (This is evidenced by Mia headbutting another girl in the first scene of the movie.) Mia’s relation ship with her mother is rocky,
for obvious reasons. Another reason (also implied) that Joanne was young,
possibly even a teenager when she had Mia. Mia and Joanne, we discover, are
stuck in a highly toxic, highly jealous and emotionally abusive relationship.
Mia and Joanne develop their jealousy until they’re rivals for the attention of Joanne’s new boyfriend Connor. This relationship is similar to the one described in the English folk song known as “The Twa [Two] Sisters (Child Ballad #10).” Two Sisters, one dark and one fair, are in love
with the same man. The older, dark-haired one is jealous of the younger, fair one for winning his love, so she drowns her sister in a river. Mia doesn’t drown her mother, but she leaves her mother when she’s emotionally flailing.
Connor, Joanne’s mysterious, Irish boyfriend, seems to take his cues from the knight in “The Fair Flower of Northumberland (Child 9).” In the film, we become distrusting of Connor early on. He seems too good to be true. He’s nice, has a job, a car and is nice to Joanne and her daughters.
However, he’s always going off to making phone calls to his “mum.” He woos Joanne and he has a soft spot for Mia. Mia has a big fat crush on him. He knows this and exploits it. Mia shows off for him, she lies to impress him; he shows Mia how to catch a fish (by noodling). He lets her borrow money, his camcorder and encourages her to pursue her beloved hip hop dance. Mia loses a lot more than 20 quid to him.
In “The Fair Flower,” a Scottish knight is captured by the Earl of Northumberland (in Northern England) and the knight bribes the Earl’s daughter the “fair flower” with marriage if
she helps him escape. Once the return to the knight’s home, he confesses that he’s married and has children and sends the daughter back home. She is shamed for her trusting nature and the knight’s seduction is blamed on “Scottish Treachery.” Well, the way I see it, “Scottish Treachery” could easily be “Irish Treachery” as the English have a history of not getting on well with their neighbors and the ballads collected by Francis Child often have many titles, forms and versions, having been passed down orally.
Mia eventually finds out who Connor’s mum really is, and goes ape shit. She does things that seemingly rational adults wouldn’t do, but why would she? She’s young, and emotionally volatile. Arnold does a good job of showing us that Mia is not an adult, while she may otherwise look like one. As a result, Mia goes all “The Two Sisters” and takes her jealousy of her mother et al. out on an
innocent victim, whom she almost drowns in the Thames River.
After causing much trouble at home and facing obstacles most people never have to deal with, let alone at the tender age of 15, Mia decides to leave home. Earlier in the film, Mia meets a young “new age traveler,” Billy, whom she befriends because he defends her when his brothers accuse her of trying to steal their sickly horse. They become close and get drunk together. He says he knows some people in Cardiff, Wales, and once he gets his car assembled he’s going there.
This element of the film closely resembles the ballads “Earl Brand” and “Erlinton” (Child 7 and 8, respectively). The songs are very similar and apparently Child only categorized them separately based on their outcomes and the assailants. In Erlinton, the title character imprisons his daughter in her “bower” or bedroom to keep her from sinning. The daughter escapes to the woods where she meets her lover Willie. They are attacked by knights or outlaws and Willie kills all of them and they escape.
Fish Tank in overall parallels this narrative, but also subverts it. It isn’t about Billy, it’s about Mia. She’s imprisoned at her council estate, by her loneliness, by her prickly nature, by her relationship
with her mother, by the 3:4 aspect ratio. We can see how she could see Connor as an idealized means of escape. When her illusions about Connor break down, she flees the mess that she’s imprisoned herself in. She joins Billy rather than going to a “referral unit” which Tyler
says are full of “spastics and idiots!”
In the end it was Tyler I felt the most sympathy for, only being 11 or so she has no control over any aspect of her life (which is why I’ve never understood why people over-glorify childhood, it kind of blows, honestly). She can’t just pack up and leave, she can’t run away from the mess at her home, or the harsh realities of council estate. I hope that she is smart to avoid the kind of emotional turmoil and jealousy her mother and sister seem to be addicted to.
Mia and company seem not only to be the victims of society and social injustice, but of bigger more mythical concepts like fate or destiny. The darkness of Mia’s chaotic behavior appears even more reckless in modern times, and being based on legend or folk ballad, would attempt to
explain her psychological drives in some archetypal way. It isn’t necessarily a comforting explanation, but it deepens the darker elements of Arnold’s social realism, by putting them in
the context of traditional folklore.