Liminal spaces as sites of transformation in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank

The tall fence encloses the camp on all sides. Its metal uprights are spiked at the top. The railway cuts along its far side with a caravan, broken Volvo and lonely horse in the shade of the Tilbury flyover. Brambles and broken pallets present their sharp thorns and splinters to all who pass. Mia is standing with her hand on the sliding latch of the iron gate. She is fifteen and is about to enter a space of transformation: what writer and environmentalist Marion Shoard calls the “edgelands”.

Andrea Arnold’s second full-length feature is a film of bleak social realism. Shot in Essex, we follow Mia (Katie Jarvis) through one challenging summer month. In one scene, she dances herself to exhaustion in an abandoned apartment in a high-rise block overlooking the densely populated housing estate, which appears golden and full of promise under the setting sun. However, as long as her days are spent around her mother (Kierston Wareing), these promises remain empty.

Holly Horner’s photography (which accompanies many of Arnold’s films) captures the importance of windows in Mia’s story. She can often be seen peering out, surveying the territory below, contemplating what exists out there for her. Inside though, the oppressive atmosphere leads to hostility.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” says her mother.
“You’re what’s wrong with me!” Mia shouts in reply.

These two lines confirm, with the disarming economy of language found in Arnold’s films, the barrier Mia must break through. The fish tank motif is, however, not limited to the physical barrier of glass in the flat. The windows through which Mia peers at the world are doubly frustrating, precisely because she can constantly see the wider world without yet knowing how to find a path to its multiple horizons.

This feeling of confinement is intensified by the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which limits the field of vision in a way that elicits an empathic relationship between the audience and the film’s protagonist. There is so much to see, but the blinkers are firmly on.

It is in the edgelands spaces around the housing estate that Mia begins to learn the language of potential. These areas exist at the interface of rural and urban environments, and as such are not easily categorised as either. It is for this reason that people within these spaces are afforded a level of autonomy denied in parks, towns and even homes where geographical space comes loaded with assumptions about the behaviour appropriate for people using it.

As Mia approaches an old horse chained up in the edgelands, she begins to break free from her own chains associated with her family. This is not to say that edgelands are safe places. As much as an empathetic audience is willing Mia to summon the inner strength needed to escape, the lack of social policing in these spaces means other people are not obliged to adopt our attitude.

As she tries to break the lock on the horses’ chain, Mia is grabbed by the young men living in caravans on the site. One pulls her arms behind her back and another man grapples with her kicking legs. These men are entitled to the same freedom as Mia in this space, and as such it is difficult to determine who is in the right and who is in the wrong.

A dog barks at the trespasser. Trucks and cars roar past overhead. The sun slices through metal fences and weeds and we realise that absolute freedom from the social gaze is not without its problems. Although Mia escapes, her belongings are scattered among the gravel and weeds. She is forced to return, better prepared and more cautious, this time understanding a little more about how these liminal spaces operate.

Only one of the men is sitting by the caravan this time, effectively leveling out the degree of threat. Mia herself is quite capable of violence. On more equal footing, hostile misunderstanding is traded for dialogue. Mia learns the horse is sick, that the young man is kind, and that her preconceptions of this space need to be altered. In this way, the edgelands offer the possibility for re-configuring understanding, of finding a new perspective, of potential.

Back at home, Mia is trapped once again by the life her mother has created. Mia can retreat to her room but the rest of the flat continues to present more challenges: an argumentative sister, alcohol, and her mum’s new boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). She is confronted by her mother’s disordered belongings, her mother’s reactive language, and her mother’s explicit sexuality. Tensions quickly rise as the appearance of Conor simultaneously brings Mia’s family closer together and wrenches it further apart.

After an illicit sexual encounter, Conor’s secret life is exposed, and Mia’s feelings for him and her mother can no longer be hidden. Despite such upheaval, her mother does not change. And as Mia stands in the doorway with her bags packed to leave, we see her mother dancing alone, looking out of the window: the very existence Mia has chosen not to repeat.

In a rare act of sensitivity, they dance together, mirroring each other. It is an acknowledgement from both sides. For Mia, she now accepts what she will always share with her mother, but is choosing a different life. Behind them, the wallpaper depicts a tropical beach with a glowing sunset. Her mother stays to dance in front of something she will never reach. Mia leaves the fish tank to find the kind of sunset that will warm her skin.

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