Recently the Guardian published a list of what it considered the best 25 films from the last 25 years. Approximately half could be said, in one way or another, to be flying the flag for a kind of social realist school of filmmaking. The tradition of social realism in British literature and arts could be said to extend back to Chaucer, through the Elizabethans, and on to Dickens and the Victorian fascination with the social underbelly. In the sixties writers like Shelagh Delaney and Arnold Wesker re-introduced social realism to the theatre, and cinema then took up the baton, held by the likes of Alan Clarke and Ken Loach. Mike Leigh flirts with the edge of social realism, as did Boyle so successfully in Trainspotting (Slumdog can be seen as an example of the tradition being ingeniously exported), whilst Oldman's only film, Nil By Mouth, was a heartfelt variation on the theme. Recently Shane Meadows has made a career out of culling stories from the wrong side of the tracks, and the shades of urban grittiness can also be spotted in films like Ratcatcher, London to Brighton and Control.
In other words, if you want to get ahead, or get your film made in the UK, setting it in a gritty, working class environment is not a stupid way to go about things. Arnold's first feature, Red Road, exploited urban misery highly effectively, getting itself onto the Guardian's list, and Fish Tank has now come out to orgiastic reviews.
The film is an astute piece of cinema. For a start, the screening I saw was in 4:3 rather than the usual wide screen preferences. Automatically this gives the film a more homespun, rough around the edges feel. Arnold and her cinematographer, Robbie Ryan use hand held to capture the action scenes, but also throw in more classical locked off images of sunsets over tower blocks. The beauty, when it emerges in this grimy world, comes as a surprise, and is all the more beguiling for it.
However, it also brings into question notions of 'authenticity'. The whole point of social realism is that it captures the world 'as it really is.' To this end, the impressive Katie Jarvis was plucked from the street, a real Essex girl, to play Mia, the lead. The audience is supposed to believe that the life we see depicted is a typical one, accurately captured. Mia's story could be the story of any 15 year old girl growing up on the edges of British society.
Maybe it is, but the more the film strived for 'authenticity' the less I trusted it, and as always, when it does this, the little chinks in the narrative seem all the more striking. Whilst Fassbender gives a touching portrayal of Connor, the seemingly kindly Wickes security man who cannot resist fucking his girlfriend's 15 year old daughter on the sofa, it seemed weird that he could just go straight back to his wife and daughter after realising the error of his ways, take them shopping, slip back into his 'normal' life. It also seemed unlikely he could afford his new build house on a nice residential estate, along with the car, on a security guard's pay. (Almost the mirror image to the security guard in Domonic Savage's credit crunch drama, Freefall.) Of course, his wife might have been paying for the mortgage, but these kind of details nag. As did the portrayal of Mia's feckless mother, whose bitterness towards her daughters was entertaining but seemed somehow too convenient: with a mother like that why shouldn't Mia be a wild child? The script's reluctance to humanise the mother, her most intimate comment to her daughter being: I tried to have you aborted, seemed designed to convince us that this kind of desiccated, wasted life is somehow 'normal'. However, it felt too pat, and if there was an inherent critique of society in the portrayal, it was never teased out or explored. (In comparison to, say, De Sica's Bicycle Thieves, perhaps the doyen of social realist filmmaking.)
In the end, all these details, and the film's insistence on noting its artful beauty, seemed to blemish the ambitions towards 'realism'. There was a predictability to the events which seemed too formulaic. (The fact that Connor was going to end up screwing Mia seemed so obvious that it seemed astonishing the mother never seemed to notice its inevitability; the little girl on her scooter was almost begging to be abducted, etc.) As Mia goes through her rite of passage, the film seemed unsure of how to fit its elements into the narrative, which became increasingly sprawling, lacking the tight plotting of Red Road.
Fish Tank is a strong, sinuous piece of cinema. The acting is impressive; it looks good; the first half possesses a rolling energy. But in the end, it didn't really seem to know what it wanted to say. It's tough growing up on a council estate, would appear to be the implied message of the title. (The tower block with its views resembling a fish tank). It's hard not to be a little mistrustful of filmmakers making films about how hard it is to live on a council estate, perhaps because cinema is of itself such an expensive medium, perhaps because a film-maker cannot help but aspire to an artistry which seems at odds with the 'gritty' reality the film seeks to capture. Nevertheless, Fish Tank seems unlikely to be the last British film attempting to capture life on the other side of the tracks, in all its supposed authenticity.