Fish Tank is one of those nightmares to review because basically it gets a thousand little things right. You're reduced to making lists. Here's what my notes would have looked like, had I made notes: "that was good," "they got that right," "that's excellent," "oh I love that." For instance, the girl's dancing. She's 15 years old and lives in a tower-block. Her mother couldn't give a toss. Her sister says things like, "I like you.... I'll kill you last." So every day, Mia goes off into an empty room and blasts out hip-hop on her CD player and let's loose. The dancing is just right, which is to say it's about 75% right. She's not perfect. She's learned these moves off the TV. She has a careless grace, moving unselfconsciously with an intent look on her face, lining up the next move in her head, cursing herself when she misses her footing, but resuming again almost immediately. She's practising the one thing she can make perfect about her life. Her mother's new boyfriend Connor (Michael Fassbender) tells her she must remember to smile. My second favorite thing in the movie is the scene where he carries her to bed one night. It's a lovely sequence, the camera close on drowsy Mia, Conor's breathing deep and loud on the soundtrack; you can almost feel the rise and fall of his ribcage. You would guess that she has been treated with this sort of tenderness maybe half dozen times in her life, if that. (We never hear anything of who or where her father is, but we can guess). From here on in, you know more or less where the movie is going, but that doesn't mean you're not rapt: the train derails with enthralling precision. Katie Jarvis, who plays Mia, is mesmerising, blunt, spirited, her face passing in and out of prettiness, and pettiness, many times within the same scene. Fassbender's character could have done with a little more cross-hatching early in the movie — his niceness felt like a smudge, a trick being pulled to maximise a later twist. It's the only major slip in an otherwise terrific movie, vivid, sharp and warm. Some of the ominous stuff feels like early Ian McEwan. It's the biggest compliment I can give director Andrea Arnold that I barely felt her hand, even as the film takes the direst of turns. She's too caught up in Mia's slipstream — quite literally at times, her camera jogging along behind her — to think of playing God. As David Edelstein put it:
The final scenes have a transcendent mixture of hope and sadness. I’ve never seen anything like Mia’s final dance, or the leave-taking with her little sister that follows. In Fish Tank, nothing goes right, yet Mia’s fate never seems preordained. Her constant motion might or might not be her salvation, but it keeps you in suspense until the last frame—and beyond.