British writer/director Andrea Arnold won the 2009 Cannes Jury Prize and 2010 BAFTA (Outstanding British Film) for this gritty coming-of-age drama, following up her same Cannes honors in 2006 for her only previous feature film, Red Road. She also landed an Oscar in 2005 for her short film Wasp, which travels some of the same thematic ground as Fish Tank. So clearly she has the attention of critics, but this new Criterion release is her best opportunity to date for any meaningful US viewership.
Thankfully, the package functions as something of an Arnold primer, including not only the feature film but also her filmography of short films including Wasp. This allows viewers to track most of her progression as a filmmaker over the past decade, revealing that her technique has improved but her focus (aside from Red Road) has remained primarily directed to the dreary orbit of downtrodden characters struggling for survival in the UK's version of housing projects, the council estates. The shorts move from the extremely grainy and somewhat shocking Milk to the marginally less grainy but more shocking Dog to the just plain depressing Wasp, setting up her transition to this feature length exploration of life in the lower class.
The star of Arnold's latest tale is a tough teen named Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis), a gloomy loner who seemingly only enjoys herself when developing solo b-girl dance routines. If that sounds like the ill-advised setup of any number of lame teen dance films, note that it's seemingly just included as some minor added flavor for the character rather than an all-encompassing definition, although we are treated to a couple of Mia's amateurish routines. She lives with her selfish mom and much younger sassy sister with no positive male influence in the household until a new suitor (Michael Fassbender) enters her mom's life. His attention to Mia initially takes on a parental tone, providing her with some needed stability and affection. It's no shock that their relationship soon shifts into uncomfortable Lolita territory, but the fallout from that shift takes the film in an unexpected direction that sets up a rather far-fetched and short-lived kidnapping by Mia. That's right: by Mia, not of Mia. Along the way, she also strikes up a friendship with a local gypsy boy and his horse, a distracting subplot that adds little to the film other than revealing some additional emotion trapped beneath her tough exterior.
Jarvis is fine as the awkward teen, bringing a thorough believability to her intriguing character. Fassbender is also good in his role as the dashing but ultimately extremely flawed man of the house. They carry the film with only limited support from ancillary characters. Arnold's direction is solid throughout, even if her writing falters with the odd and unnecessary missteps into dance, kidnapping and gypsy horses. There's little new revealed here about life near the bottom of the socioeconomic foodchain (it sucks, and folks are unhappy), and in fact the core plot could easily be transferred to any social strata, so while it's worthwhile to watch the lead performances and continuing improvement of Arnold, it's difficult to recommend the film as essential viewing. Arnold is moving on to an update of Wuthering Heights starring Kaya Scodelario from the original UK cast of Skins, so perhaps she's also tired of the council estate rut of her films for now.
The Criterion image quality is predictably exquisite in Blu-ray high definition, revealing all the grime of the estates as well as the beauty of the suburban countryside late in the film. As the film is only two years old, little restoration efforts were required, but the disc is packed with bonus features including some comical dance audition footage of other candidates for the lead role, interviews with Fassbender and Kierston Wareing (the mom), still photos from the set, as well as the aforementioned shorts.