Andrea Arnold – the British writer and director has a habit of filming insects as much as filming her characters in whatever she makes. Her films usually have working-class protagonists, who understand the importance of money. They struggle for it, earn to live in ways that best make them feel independent and free. In addition, a few of them are “stuck in their families, ingrown like a toenail,” to borrow words from ‘A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Taylor, Bond Street Books, 2015). Their families are not support systems but burdens. Absent figures and neglectful individuals are prominent with their behavior being borderline abusive at times.
The issues that her characters go through (all her protagonists are female) are so many that it is not possible to cover them in a paragraph or analyze them without spoiling the films. In one film, the character has suffered a lot, but does not fit into the labels of victim or survivor. She takes action for what has been done to her. In another, a teenager is not strong enough to know how to react to what has just transpired but does something so liberating that it does make some of the audience breathe a sigh of relief – even if some others may turn away from watching the film.
Arnold’s films have a distinct style and plenty of substance. I like all her films but one, which I like in parts and I have included the short that shot her to fame. She is a former actor, apparently, and directs television shows, and an Order of the British Empire. She turned 60 earlier this April. Arnold was born when her mum was 16 in a working-class family and grew up on a council estate. She studied at the American Film Institute, Los Angeles, and went back to the UK. This is my ranking of every Andrea Arnold film with the exception of two shorts: ‘Milk’ and ‘Dog’.
5. AMERICAN HONEY (2016)
‘American Honey’ is a rather well-received film, and the first film that Arnold shot and set in the US. Starring Sasha Lane as Star, the film won the Jury Prize at Cannes, which seems to be Arnold’s prize because three of her four features have won that prize. Star lives with two of her younger brothers. She has an abusive and alcoholic father and a mother who has abandoned her.
On her way home from a dumpster, she meets Jake (Shia LaBeouf), and after a couple of days, Krystal (the excellent Riley Keough). The film soon turns messy with Star having feelings for Jake, Krystal thinking Star a legal adult, and some sex and violence being involved.
Despite liking the premise of the film, and Arnold’s usual cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the US is just too big. Not that Arnold cannot handle it – maybe she and Ryan are yet to find their way there. The poster of the film is a beautiful shot of Star’s back exploring the largeness of America. However, I suppose, this bit is just in my head, and I am bracketing her as a Brit filmmaker. My prejudices have placed this film in this slot.
The sky and ground seem measureless, the characters and their troubles seem predictable and follow a pattern. And were there any insects? I do not recall. Star is an Arnold protagonist and that is the only thing that made this film work for me.
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Not to digress a lot, Arnold, famously, took on the second season of ‘Big Little Lies,’ but the product and style were, to anybody who has followed Arnold’s work over the last decade and a half, not hers but the chap who made ‘Sharp Objects’ and the first season of ‘Lies’. Arnold chose not to talk about it.
She also did a few episodes of Joe Soloway’s ‘Transparent,’ too. Arnold’s direction is such that the Transparent episodes had that style and substance, which were altogether missing from the second season of ‘Lies’. America or my prejudice, something was just not right and it is not mere speculation, there are enough reports on the conflict between creative control between Arnold and the first season’s showrunner.
I don’t know if it’s the US or me, but through ‘Transparent’, Arnold has shown us what she can do with something that she has not even written. She can direct, add her elements, and get the job done; trust her!
4. WUTHERING HEIGHTS (2011)
“You broke my heart. You killed me,” whispers Catherine Earnshaw in the 70-second trailer featuring a Black Heathcliff. There is panting, staring, smiling, running, touching hugging, young and old Cathy and Heath, birds, grass, rain, and the sound of insects. Based on the classic by Emily Brontë, Arnold has done everything to this in order to turn it into her tale.
She co-wrote the script with Olivia Hetreed. Another trailer has Mumford And Son’s ‘The Enemy’ playing in the background: “But I came and I was nothing! And time will give us nothing.” The song was, apparently, composed for this film and not released until 2012.
‘Wuthering Heights’ (2011) is filled with contemporary dialogues: “Did you forget me?” “I could no more forget you than myself.” // “How could you not think of me all this time? // “You treat me so badly, Cathy.” The 1847 book has been adapted into more than ten films but none as delicately as Arnold’s.
Arnold gained international attention through her 2003 short called ‘Wasp’, so the insects, the grass, the sludge, and the soil are always fighting for attention with her characters. Heathcliff’s complexity in contrast to Cathy’s privilege is something that Arnold visually and symbolically takes on by casting James Howson and Solomon Glave as the young adult and young Heathcliff. They take the beating, literally.
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Heathcliff is such a hero that I studied the text in both my bachelor’s and master’s. Both professors were swayed by him, quoting him endlessly, and rooting for him. I still recall how both of them introduced the novel with the branches hitting the glass window, and to Arnold’s and Ryan’s credits, this third introduction was as chilling and horrifying. Some novels have famous opening lines; some have famous opening scenes.
This Heathcliff is a revelation. He is submissive and assertive at the same time. There was a lot of criticism about how the author wrote him and Arnold does not try to absolve him by making him Black but adds a layer that makes us think more. The struggle, pain, and criticism do not go away.
Arnold uses nature and character, but she cannot meddle with the whiteness and access of the Earnshaws. Ryan shoots in box frames, still with enough Arnold in it for us to say: she breaks our heart; she kills us.
Watch/Stream Wuthering Heights on Hoopla
3. RED ROAD (2006)
When I first saw ‘Red Road’ (2006) it was like nothing I had seen before. It was daring, going places where most films had not. It was a thriller, but I only found that out later, so what was it? A drama!
It involved a security camera operator in Glasgow. Winner of the Cannes Jury Prize, Jackie (Kate Dickie) seems to be obsessed with Clyde (Tony Curran). Otherwise, she is looking at footage of people masturbating, people drunk, and rodents crossing the road.
Out of nowhere, Clyde shows up on the camera one night. Katie is in her mid-thirties; her intentions and Arnold’s are never clear until the ending. Clyde’s identity is unsure, too. Jackie’s stalking tells us that he talks to a young girl and a young man; Arnold does not tell us anymore.
She follows him one day. For a good portion of the film, the light is tinted in red. They get naked and sleep with each other. This being her debut feature, Arnold leaves no stone unturned in establishing herself, the characters, and the story.
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The result is a shocking psychological thriller, where the protagonist takes charge like nobody else, and along with the filmmaker, gives us the reward for trusting the film, holding on to them, and all the aspects we were absolutely clueless about until that moment.
Dickie and Curran are entirely convincing in their roles, keeping their identities mysterious yet interesting enough. Ryan’s camerawork is filled with Glasgow streets and animals, or close-ups of the characters.
‘Red Road’ is no ‘Requiem for a Dream’; it does not want to shock and scare you throughout. It wants you to wait patiently. I compare the two because that was another film that I watched back then and could not shake off.
The visual of ‘Red Road’ stays true to its title with the scenes in red and the drama unfolding in red. Ryan and Arnold still focus on the characters; the intimacy between Jackie and Clyde is shot by Ryan so well that it is the limits of what an intimate scene could be shot as.
The film deserves a watch to see how Arnold, Ryan, and her protagonists manage this tale without telling, and then reveal it all. Apparently, shot in the Dogme 95 style, which is used by filmmakers including Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, created to “take back power for the directors as artists.” The basic idea is they had rules to exclude the use of elaborate special effects and technology, and bring the focus back on the traditional values of performance, plot, and theme.
2. WASP (2003)
‘Wasp’ (2003) is a 26-minute short with four children and their mother. The children have a foul tongue. It is perhaps here that Arnold’s obsession with insects began. The children are hungry and, to make matters worse, one of them is an infant.
Zoe (Natalie Press) does not even have any footwear for the first five minutes; she is poor and cannot get the children food. She lies to her ex, who passes by that she is just babysitting, and plans on going on her first date in a long time. The wasp appears on the window while she is fixing her children sandwiches and she lets it out.
You have to watch ‘Wasp,’ to see where Arnold gets her style and substance from. To figure out where the technique came from, and how Ryan shoots this working-class family. It has been 18 years since this short came, and won the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2004. It made her an instant star internationally, but, more so, back home in the UK/
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Set in Dartford, Arnold’s hometown, the date happens in a pub where Zoe brings the children and leaves them outside. The children like the ex. They think he looks like David Beckham. To which, Zoe says his name is Dave. Dave is playing pool at the pub and asks Zoe to get his drink. All Zoe wants is a breeze, but she has to feed her children. This leads to Zoe placing: Dave’s drink, chips for the children, and a breezer that she has to almost cancel towards the end.
A lot happens later, but the wasp returns. There is some shaming by other women in the pub about how Zoe cannot take care of her children, which, thankfully, Dave does not hear. Dave cannot take Zoe home; Zoe cannot take Dave home. What do they do? The children are just outside and knocking at the door from time to time. The infant is crying during others. Arnold’s management of her protagonist shuffling through intimacy, motherhood, unemployment, friendship, survival, and womanhood is so well-developed that it was hard to believe that this film was only 26 minutes including the end credits.
Ryan runs after Zoe as she runs after her children in the initial shots. His close-ups between Zoe and Dave are as intimate as intimacy can approve of. The ending is something else. Who cast the wasp and how did they shoot that so slowly?
Watch/Stream Wasp for free on Short Film of the Week
1. FISH TANK (2009)
Arnold made what would perhaps be the finest film of her filmography in 2009. Fish Tank, winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes is a film is about a 15-year old. It also stars Michael Fassbender straight out of Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ (2009).
Mia (Katie Jarvis) is an adolescent who lives with her mum Joanne (Kierston Wareing). She seems to be more of an adolescent who is currently dating Conor (Fassbender). Mia speaks tough, gets physically and verbally abused by Joanne, sexually abused by Conor, and emotionally abused by the world. She reacts in ways that may seem shocking to some. She is young, so it’s not possible for her to reflect on what’s happening to her right away.
Conor pushes her to apply for an audition, giving her a camera to record her dance. Their interactions become flirtatious, from this incident. Joanne’s jealousy also starts to develop. Conor spanks Mia and then has intercourse with Joanne.
A lot of events happen in between. Eventually, Mia finds out that Conor has a daughter called Keira. Once Mia goes there, Conor slaps Mia. This time ferociously, not flirtatiously.
‘Fish Tank’ is way better than ‘American Honey’ although you may argue it has similar themes. Mia’s life is harder, but she learns to live through it. She does not escape, but she runs to return.
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The box frames return with Ryan, and so do the tracking shots. Mia runs and so do Ryan and Arnold. Hand-held camera, I suppose, but Mia’s life is too much to handle; what else could she do? She lives in East London, in a council estate.
We are heading back to Arnold’s childhood setting now, but ‘Wasp’ was similar to the conditions of her family in terms of having a single mother. Having written that, biographical criticism is the easiest; the maker makes what she knows at times, and uses those settings to tell different tales.
‘Fish Tank’ assembled them well enough to place Mia in a context that was similar to Arnold geographically, but was imagined by her. Mia’s way of resolving what happens to her is a release, which, in my opinion, is as cathartic as a release and resolution can get in a film. ‘Fish Tank’ is, easily, Andrea Arnold’s best film.