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Recasting the Council Estate: A Discussion of Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and Fish Tank

Updated: Mar 4

By @laraabbey on Instagram, adapted from a longer essay

Representations of high-rise tower blocks and council estates have a long and storied history within British cinema. From the social realist portrayals of the 1960s to the ‘Sink Estate Film’ of the mid-to-late 2000s, the council estate has appeared as a prominent image, oftentimes wrought with less-than-rosy connotations. However, British filmmakers have been imbuing the ‘council estate film’ with new meanings and new life. Last year alone, we saw the release of two films that gave audiences a new perspective on the genre - Charlotte Regan’s radically cheerful Scrapper and Kibwe Tavares and Daniel Kaluuya’s futuristic take, The Kitchen. But there is one director from the mid-00s whose name I think deserves a mention when it comes to rethinking council estate cinema, that being Andrea Arnold and her feature debut Red Road (2006), and its follow-up Fish Tank (2009). Read on to hear about how, in these films, Arnold gives some much-needed nuance and depth to the ‘estate film’.


The earlier of these two films, Red Road, revolves around Jackie, a middle-aged CCTV operator in Glasgow who develops a fascination with a resident of the titular estate (used to house ex-cons) after seeing him on-camera, for reasons that are not revealed until the end of the film. Jackie’s act of ‘breaking the frame’ – traversing into an area that she is usually distanced from due to only seeing it on screen – allows her, and the audience, to come to understand the residents as actual people as opposed to images that she must surveil. In an exchange towards the end of the film, Jackie gets to know Clyde’s softer side – his attempts to reach out to his estranged daughter, as well as his passion for woodcarving – as well as witnessing a tender and vulnerable moment between Clyde’s flatmates. Ultimately, it’s Jackie’s interactions with the estate that give her closure on her past, and hope for a brighter future.

A woman looking at the output of many CCTV cameras,

Fish Tank moves from an outsider to insider perspective, following Mia, a troubled 15-year-old living on an East London council estate. Although arguably lacking the optimism of its predecessor, Fish Tank is still valuable when it comes to thinking about a different view of ‘council estate cinema’ because of how much we get to know Mia during the course of the film. We follow her in close-up, handheld shots, placing us right there with her and putting her interiority on display. We see Mia’s full spectrum of emotion - from anger, to joy, to sadness – which, thanks to Katie Jarvis’ performance, is believable throughout and manages to resist the stereotypes of people like Mia being overly volatile. The amount insight that Arnold allows us into Mia’s thoughts and feelings ensures depth and avoids falling into preconceptions.


A young girl looks at the field behind a metal fence.

Overall, The nuance that Arnold presents the council estate with across both films, with them even contradicting each other at points, acts as an antidote to the slew of media that relied on generalising ‘sink estate’/’poverty porn’ tropes at the time these films were made, and even today – showing why films like Scrapper and The Kitchen are still very much necessary and relevant.

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