‘Fish Tank’ review: A gritty film about the sucky life of Britain’s working class

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Fish Tank review: Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender in Fish Tank
Katie Jarvis as Mia and Michael Fassbender as Conor in Fish Tank

Fish Tank review in a nutshell

The working class leads especially sucky lives and nobody makes good decisions.

Click here or scroll below for where to watch Fish Tank.

Movie synopsis

A 15-year-old delinquent’s life changes when her mother brings home a new boyfriend.

Fish Tank review/recap (with all the spoilers!)

Fish Tank is a small British film that Michael Fassbender did back in 2009. It’s also one of the grittiest and most horrifying films I’ve ever watched — and by that I mean it’s about people with sucky lives making monumentally bad decisions that leave you gaping in horror. A viewer commented on Tumblr that it was so hard watching someone’s life suck so bad. And it really is.

15-year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), her uncaring mother and her younger sister live in a poor, working-class neighbourhood. She is a delinquent in every sense of the word with terrible attitude problems — with her mother and her younger sister not faring any better on that scale — and only her love for dance is keeping her afloat in this awful life that they are all living.

One day, her mother takes on a lover, Conor (played by Michael Fassbender), who is really hot and seems to be a genuinely good guy. He brings the family for outings in his car, is really nice to Mia, and encourages her in her passion for dancing, telling her she is good and loaning her a camcorder so she can send in a tape for a dance audition. Naturally, she’s drawn to him, because she’s 15, he’s hot, and he’s probably the first guy to ever be nice to her. It doesn’t help that she keeps hearing her mother have sex with him. She is even morbidly curious enough to peek one time while they are doing it.

Michael Fassbender half-naked breakfast scene in Fish Tank
Mia, seen here staring in wonder at Conor’s half-nakedness

And you think that Conor is genuine and all and you like him, and then he does the unforgivable — a scene which I watched in horror while exclaiming “What are you doing?!” ? — and has sex with her. And then he moves out of their house the very next day.

Even then, you could *almost* (*almost!*) forgive him for screwing her — and her mum — over, because he was drunk (though that is NEVER an excuse for such things), and he shows some form of guilt when Mia hunts him down to where he lives. You think he feels guilty cause she’s underage and he knows what he did was wrong in many ways, because he seems sensible enough to know that. But then afterwards, you find out, along with Mia, that he actually has a wife and a young daughter in a nice neighbourhood, which just upends everything that you thought you knew about him.

This sets off probably the most suspenseful sequence in the whole film, where in revenge, Mia lures his daughter away into some desolate grassland; and every moment that passes, you become more and more horrified as you wonder if she is actually going to leave her there and then run off. It culminates almost self-fulfillingly when she nearly drowns the girl in a lake, albeit by accident. Thankfully, she doesn’t actually want to commit murder, and so she saves her and returns her home safely.

Conor later comes chasing after Mia in the dark, but leaves after hitting her. Which she admittedly deserves, but that doesn’t mitigate the fact that he’s an asshole of the highest degree, which is also maybe why he only hits her once and then leaves — because he knows that — instead of almost murdering her, which any other person might have done if someone endangered their children.

Even after Conor leaves, Mia’s life doesn’t change. She has hopes that her dance audition will lead to something better, but it turns out that it was for some sleazy club instead, so she leaves without auditioning. At the end of the movie, she leaves home to go to Wales with a fairly decent teenage boy from the same neighbourhood that she meets during the course of the movie. We’re left wondering if she will eventually get out of this crappy life. Probably not, with all her faults and her penchant for making bad decisions, but perhaps she will lead a slightly less crappy life. One can only hope.

Director Andrea Arnold seems to gravitate towards bleak films about the working class. She won an Oscar for Best Live-Action Short Film for Wasp, which tells a similar story of a poor single mother making monumentally bad decisions because she just doesn’t care. Her films make for depressive viewing, but even though I personally have to be dragged kicking and screaming to watch these kinds of films, I’ll argue that it’s necessary — because sometimes we just need a jolt out of our comfort zone to remember that somewhere out there, there are people living wretched lives and nobody seems to care or want to help. Not everybody gets a happy ending, or an Instagram-worthy middle. Some never get a reprieve in their entire, miserable lives.

I wonder why the movie is called Fish Tank though. Is it because the working class are like fish trapped in a tank and they’ll never get out of this cycle of poverty and despair? And people lucky enough to not be in these circumstances treat them as decorations but don’t do anything to free them? I honestly have no idea, but some people on Reddit have similar theories.

(I JUST HAD AN EPIPHANY ABOUT HIS NAME. “CONOR”. HE LITERALLY *CONS* THEM. Why didn’t I see it before?!)

Michael Fassbender has *got* to stop picking this kind of sad, sack-of-shit roles. I know he’s great at them, but really, please, do something else? Where his characters don’t make morally questionable decisions? Do a musical or something. Be Captain von Trapp in a remake of The Sound of Music or something; just do a film where he has a slight chance of happiness. He doesn’t even have to do a rom-com! Just do something not so depressing! *end rant*

Michael Fassbender and Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre
And no, Jane Eyre doesn’t count, because it’s one of the bleakest books I ever gave up on reading, and I have no intention of ever watching it. Also because I hate their hair in the film.

Where to watch Fish Tank

Streaming services: Fish Tank is on The Criterion Channel in the US (where you can also watch more of Andrea Arnold’s short films about the wretchedness of working class people’s lives), and maybe Stan in Australia. It’s not on Netflix Singapore or US, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu.

Rent/Buy: Get it on iTunes, Amazon (US), Microsoft, Amazon (UK), BFI Player (UK)

(Most of these rental/purchase links aren’t for Singapore viewers, so if you’re in Singapore and you really want to watch it, you’ll need a VPN if you don’t already have one. ? I’m using NordVPN, which costs US$125.64 for 3 years. It’s even cheaper if you have a Shopback or Rakuten account (formerly known as Ebates) and activate your cashback before your purchase.)

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