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FISH TANK
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Katie Jarvis, Michael Fassbender, Kierston Wareing, Rebecca Griffiths, Harry Treadaway, Sydney Mary Nash
Director: Andrea Arnold
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Standard 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: See Review
Length: 122 Minutes
Release Date: February 22, 2011

You need sortin' out, you do.

Film ***1/2

On the surface, Fish Tank may seem like just another coming of age story revolving around a troubled youth. But right from the first several minutes, it's clear that writer/director Andrea Arnold isn't taking the familiar safe route. Her film is so raw and razor sharp in the way it unfolds, that after a while you forget you're watching a film and swear it's a glance at someone's actual life.

Arnold has already earned comparisons to that of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach in terms of her storytelling method, which is justly earned. The way she captures the working class section of England, and the people who live there, is just as tremendously authentic as what we've seen from Leigh and Loach. Very little hope exists in the lives of these characters, though we see a slight glimpse of it every so often.

Mia (stunning newcomer Katie Jarvis) is a 15 year old girl trapped in a miserable life, from which there appears to be no escape now or any time soon. She's indeed the hot tempered type, and quick to head butt anyone who looks at her the wrong way. The only thing that provides any escape for her is that of hip hop dancing, which she practices quite frequently in privacy.

Mia's home life is where most of the misery comes from. Her mom, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), is pretty much negligent, and barely speaks to her unless she has something vile to say. The effect of this has caused Mia to treat her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths), with the same level of neglect.

The turning point in the story arrives when Mia begins to frequently and unexpectedly bond with Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mom's latest romantic fling. He is quick to complement her on being the person she is, in addition to her dancing abilities. He is the first person to ever say such things to her, and this triggers an attention-craving side to Mia, who has never had a boyfriend or experienced physical love.

Of course, there is the issue of the age gap between Mia and Connor, which is the one thing holding her back from fully expressing her infatuation with him. And it's clear to assume that once they start to hang around one another and flirt innocently, he may hold the same sort of feelings for her as well.

And Mia isn't without other options as far as potential boyfriend material is concerned. She also strikes something of a connection after meeting through an unusual circumstance with Billy (Harry Treadaway), who's more age appropriate. But Mia finds herself more drawn to Connor's advances and continues to keep pursuing him, though not without feeling very conflicted about the matter.

The film is bold in the way it presents these characters in a non-judgmental way. Arnold simply lets the story unfold, with the viewer in a complete fly on the wall state. Throughout the film, characters make decisions that make it difficult for us to necessarily sympathize with them, but then again Arnold is telling a story that is very much a reflection of real life situations.

In a truly breakthrough performance, Katie Jarvis has you sold on her character within the first minute. Her hip-hop dancing and street savvy attitude had me instantly thinking that she was really this character before being cast. And she's got the dramatic acting chops to boot, and I have a feeling we will be seeing more of her very soon.

As for Michael Fassbender, he's quickly becoming one of the most fantastic actors on the rise, after displaying some knockout work in both Inglourious Basterds and, especially, the hauntingly brilliant Hunger. He brings a great deal of charm to the role of Connor, a most complex character for obvious reasons.

Though it goes a little off the tracks in it's final act, for reasons I can't go into without spoiling, Fish Tank is a truly raw and thoroghly gripping character study. It's fresh look into a section of England rarely ever captured on film, and the uniquely conflicted female character as its focus are huge points in illustrating the distinction between this and the typical coming of age tale. As a filmmaker, Andrea Arnold is a breath of fresh air, and I truly look forward to what she delivers next!

Video ****

Talk about being caught by surprise. I don't think I've come across a Blu-ray release of a contemporary film in the standard 1.33 ratio, much less a Criterion release. But sure enough, the video presentation is definitely at the Criterion level from beginning to end. The image doesn't appear to have any cropping of the frame, leaving me to believe that this was indeed how the film was shot (perhaps Arnold is taking something of a cue from Stanley Kubrick). Image detail is outstanding right from the opening frame. The urban English setting looks even more strikingly authentic, with colors and flesh tones appearing in breathtaking form. Criterion knows how to surprise, as they have clearly done with this release!

Audio ***1/2

The DTS HD mix enhances this dialogue driven piece much more than one would expect. There's quite a lot of hip hop music included on the soundtrack, and every track provides an insane performance on the sound channels. Dialogue delivery is handled brilliantly, though if you're not heavily experienced with thick British dialect you may have to switch on the subtitles during a couple of exchanges. The authenticity of the setting also comes through by way of background noises, which is definite plus. All in all, a rich sounding experience.

Features ***1/2

Though not the most heavy on supplements as we're used to seeing from Criterion, this release nonetheless provides some great and unique extras. There's a video interview with actress Kierston Wareing, who looks a whole lot younger than the character she plays, which runs about 15 minutes. We also get an audio interview with Michael Fassbender, which runs close to a half hour. In addition, we have around 10 minutes of Additional Footage, three short films from Andrea Arnold; Milk (from 1998), Dog (2001) and Wasp (2003), the third of which won an Oscar. Lastly, there's a Stills Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer.

And, like all great Criterion discs, there's a terrific insert booklet. This one features an essay by film scholar Ian Christie.

Summary:

I have a huge appreciation for films that zero in on a place and a character that feel entirely new to me, and Fish Tank is unquestionably that type of film. Andrea Arnold's razor sharp capturing of this urban English setting, and the remarkably performances from Katie Jarvis and Michael Fassbender make this a true must-see occasion for fans of independent drama. Fans of Criterion Blu-ray releases should also take notice, once again!

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