With just four features to date, this Oscar-winning British director has established herself as a true artist of cinematic realism.
One of Britain’s finest filmmakers working today, it would be easy to describe Andrea Arnold as the female Ken Loach, given her commitment to that staple of British cinema: social realism.
Drawing inspiration from the everyday world around her – “I see someone on the bus, and I want to write about them” – Arnold’s films are observational, intimate and immersive, with a verisimilitude that comes from casting newcomers and non-professionals, as well as a gritty, no-frills aesthetic framed by the tight screen ratio of 1.33:1. And like Loach, bleak is the adjective that comes to mind when describing the worlds Arnold captures through her lens, although the director will beg to differ.
“I wonder whether my bleak-o-meter is set differently from other people’s,” she has said. “I have such passion for what I do that I can’t see it as bleak.
My films don’t give you an easy ride. I can see that. The sense I get is that people have quite a physical experience with them. They feel afterwards that they’ve really been through something.”
Born in 1961 in Dartford, Kent, Arnold worked in television for ten years after leaving school, including a gig as a dancer on Top of the Pops. Feeling more comfortable behind a camera than in front of one, she helmed a trio of short films, the third of which, Wasp, received the Academy Award for Best Live Action short in 2004.
Arnold was 45 when she made her feature debut with the disturbing Red Road (2006), the story of a Glasgow CCTV operator (played by the marvellous Kate Dickie) that becomes obsessed with a man she spots on camera and proceeds to stalk him. The film won the Jury Prize at Cannes and a BAFTA the following year for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.
Fish Tank (2009), her second and probably most accessible film, is a perfect introduction to the themes and stylistic choices that are her signature. Set in an East London housing estate, it’s the tale of a 15-year-old girl (newcomer Katie Jarvis) who longs to escape her grim surroundings through street-dancing, only to become infatuated with her mother’s new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). Fish Tank also received the Jury Prize at Cannes, as well as the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film in 2010.
Wuthering Heights was a project perfectly suited to the director’s sensibilities, and her 2011 adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic is certainly radical, eschewing the traditional period costume drama approach for a more raw and unconventional take – and casting black actors as Heathcliff.
In her fourth feature, American Honey (2016), Arnold adopts the voyeuristic style favoured by Larry Clark and Harmony Korine for an episodic road trip into the American heartland, where a group of nomadic, impoverished youths sell magazine subscriptions to people who don’t want them or can’t afford them. Anchored by a knockout performance from non-professional Sasha Lane, and featuring a surprisingly good one from Shia LaBeouf, American Honey is one of Arnold’s best films – an authentic slice of Americana made by a Brit.
Arnold’s films aren’t exactly mainstream, but this darling of the indie/arthouse circuit is set to reach a bigger audience after signing on to direct all seven episodes of the second season of Big Little Lies. “We’re just thrilled to welcome her to our family,” said Reese Witherspoon, and it’s exciting to contemplate just what this celebrated female filmmaker will bring to the Emmy and Golden Globe-winning drama series.