Fish Tank is a compelling realist film from 2009, written and directed by Andrea Arnold, about the graceless, foul-mouthed, violent teenager Mia Williams. The character is not so much expertly played as perfectly inhabited by Katie Jarvis, who had no formal acting training and was cast after Andrea Arnold saw her having a row with her boyfriend.
Mia lives with her trampy mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing) and her younger sister in a dismal Essex tower block and dreams of freedom. But what freedom can there ever be for a girl like her? The only taste of it she can get involves breaking into an empty flat to dance and get drunk on cheap cider, though the domestic arrangements in her own flat are also a little, let us say, unstructured: it’s all girls together, and Joanne thinks nothing of Mia walking round the place in her panties,
in part because it’s a case of, like mother, like daughter.
And that also proves to be true in other ways when Joanne gets herself a new, good-looking Irish boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender).
From the first, there’s an element of sexual tension between Mia and Conor: she checks him out as he walks up the stairs, and pretends to fall asleep inconveniently on her mother’s bed just as he and Joanne are preparing for a night of passion, so that Conor has to carry her back to her own room and put her to bed, which includes taking off her jeans.
Mia runs off after overhearing a social worker telling her mother that she is to be sent to an institution for delinquents. Seeing an advert in a cafe, she decides to apply for a job as a dancer, another escape route that ultimately doesn’t work out. Conor lends her a camera to film an audition tape – and when she’s ungrateful about it, he spanks her.
‘You, young lady, are overdue a good hiding,’ he says, and puts her across his knee.
It’s a relatively brief spanking consisting of just three smacks, respectively ‘for being cheeky’, ‘for sneaking up on me’ and ‘for running away on the social worker’. It’s mainly shot to favor Mia’s reaction, which perhaps counteracts any impression of perfunctoriness:
But afterwards he tells her, ‘You got off lightly this time,’ implying the possibility of more and worse to come.
Reviewers variously described it as ‘joking’, ‘playful’, ‘flirtatious, inappropriately sexual’, a ‘mock-spanking’; it is an ‘alarming’ moment that is full of ‘sexual tension’, but he is also treating her ‘like a little girl again’. One writer remarked, with pointed frankness,
‘I wanted Michael Fassbender to put me over his knee and spank me.’
The phrase that best hits the nail on the head is ‘suddenly strange and jarring’. Modern viewers no longer know quite how to take this sort of thing, because it has more than one connotation: it is something that might be done by a father, but also a lover. And that’s very much to the point.
Immediately after the spanking, Joanne walks in, and Conor’s behavior is just a little furtive: if there were an innocent construction to put on the incident, you might expect him to say something to the effect that he has done what Mia has long needed a father to do to her, but instead he just remarks that he has been looking out his camera to lend her. The spanking is something that needs to be concealed, yet there is also the opportunity to repeat the exercise under Joanne’s very nose: when
she cynically says that Mia will only break the loaned camera, he replies, ‘she’ll get a good hiding if she does’, with a significant look at the prospective recipient.
This sets up any future spanking to mean unambiguously one thing to the mother and unambiguously the other to the daughter. To make it absolutely clear on the latter score, there’s a subsequent exchange, apropos of something else, in which she tells him, ‘I’m not a bloody kid, you know.’ ‘I know that,’ he replies. And that perhaps accounts for why there isn’t a second spanking: the relationship escalates rapidly to sex on the sofa after Joanne has drunkenly passed out, then degenerates once Mia discovers that he’s married with a kid of his own. But at least she does finally escape from the estate – even if it’s only to South Wales.