How Andrea Arnold accesses the wordless language of bodies. By Louis Rogers


If the cardinal rule of filmmaking is to show not tell, Fish Tank is its shining example. The language in the film is memorable – all sharp comebacks and crude wit – but for the characters it serves as armour, rebutting others and protecting selves, while the real communication happens through action. A sleeping body being carried upstairs to bed, confident hands plucking a fish from a murky river, a contemptuous stream of piss in the middle of a living room: the narrative is propelled by doing of a notably corporeal kind. Playing out against silence or the white noise of arguments, Fish Tank is as vitally physical as a silent movie or – more pertinently – as a dance. 

Mia, its fifteen-year-old protagonist, dreams of being a dancer. She watches MTV studiously and visits an empty flat to practise routines to Gang Starr. The fact that she’s evidently not that good reflects how physical action proves a necessary but thwarted form of expression throughout the film. Mia battles complex feelings for her mum’s new boyfriend, Connor, as she teeters between childhood and adulthood. Every contact they share – a hand on a shoulder, a piggy back, the cleaning of a wound – is fraught with unstable significance. Their inevitable, more decisive physical contact has divergent meaning for each of them, with fractious consequences. There’s terrible power in physicality, but also, a final dance scene suggests, redemptive potential.

In the context of this action, the video camera as a prop takes on a subtly metafictional role. Connor lends the camera to Mia to film a dance audition, and she tests it out by (supposedly absent-mindedly) filming him getting changed. Like Andrea Arnold’s camera that unerringly follows Mia – swerving and shaking as it keeps up with her – Mia’s camera is trained on bodies in action, and used for the express purpose of capturing wordless communication – showing not telling. When the camera is rediscovered at Connor’s own house, it has a last secret to disclose, again communicated through stark, physical realities. There might even be a glimmer of autobiography about Mia’s understated but significant interest in the video camera. She uses it as an expressive and exploratory tool, instinctively recognising a capacity that Arnold seems to revel in: film as a way of accessing the potent and wordless language of bodies. ◉


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