One of the new voices to emerge from Britain, Andrea Arnold is a unique talent who combines the realism of Ken Loach with an aesthetic akin to the Dogme 95 movement of the late 1990s. Similar to her contemporary Lynn Ramsey, Arnold has provided a much needed female voice to the cinematic landscape in the UK. Though Arnold started out her career as an actress and TV presenter, her desire to create her own stories has yielded an already impressive collection of shorts and feature films and she has another feature film in development.
Born in Dartford, Kent in England, to a teenage mother, Arnold is the eldest of four children. Observing her mother raise four children by herself had a profound impact on the young Arnold. After leaving high school at age 16 to pursue an acting career, and leaving for London two years later, Arnold got a job hosting the British children TV show No. 73 in the 1980s. She was also a dancer on Top of the Pops. By the early 1990s, as No. 73 was coming to an end, Arnold decided to retire from acting and enrolled to study directing at Los Angeles’ AFI Conservatory.
In 1998, Arnold made her first short entitled Milk that explored the aftermath of a miscarriage on a husband and wife. Enlisting the services of Stephen McGann and Lynda Steadman to play the couple dealing with the loss of a child, Arnold used the film as an exploration of how a woman copes with death. Taking the story into unconventional territory allowed Arnold’s short to standout from some of the other young filmmakers that were coming out in Britain at the time.
Three years later, Arnold made another short, called Dog, that not only explores the themes of death, but also how such events can change people. The story focuses on a teenage girl who, while out with her boyfriend, encounters a stray dog. The dog eventually becomes the symbol of something good in the girl’s poor environment. Dog would set the tone for what we would come to expect from Andrea Arnold; not just her approach to realism, but also in how she explores the lives of impoverished young people.
In 2003, Arnold made one more short which was based partly on her experiences as a child. The film delves keenly into a woman’s conflict when her negligence, while in a pub reconnecting with an old boyfriend, forces her children to fend for themselves. Panic eventually sets in for all involved when a wasp starts to crawl onto the face of her baby.
In order to add a sense of realism, Arnold decided to return to her hometown of Dartford to shoot the film rather than going for more traditional locations. She even uses local children to act alongside her cast which also included newcomer Nathalie Press and comedic actor Danny Dyer. Wasp also marked Arnold’s first collaboration with three key individuals who be instrumental in her career as a filmmaker: editor Nicholas Chaudeurge, set designer Helen Scott, and cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
A major stepping stone for Arnold, Wasp not only became a major festival hit but also won an Academy Award in 2004 for the Best Live-Action Short Film.
Red Road (review)
The success of Wasp not only raised Arnold’s profile, but also gave her the opportunity to take part in a project created by Danish filmmakers Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen. This experience became instrumental in shaping her ideas for her first feature film. The project was part of a film series called Advance Party which consisted of Scherfig and Jensen creating characters and allowing new filmmakers to make stories based on those characters. Arnold, the first of three filmmakers to take part, used their ideas for her first feature film entitled Red Road.
Set in Glasgow, Scotland, the film revolves around a CCTV security officer, Jackie (Kate Dickie), who begins to follow a mysterious man (Tony Curran), who has just been released from prison, to satisfy her curiosity about what he’s up to. The film not only explores the world of obsession, but also themes regarding coping with grief. In accordance to the rules of Advance Party, Arnold incorporated a style similar to the Dogme 95 movement of the late 1990s. Though shooting with hand-held cameras, Arnold took a different approach to the grainy look and lighting that was common in Dogme films.
Red Road premiered at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and played in competition for the Palme d’Or. The film was well-received at the festival and won the third-place Jury Prize. A major success in Britain, the film also won five Scottish BAFTAs for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, as well as acting honors for both Kate Dickie and Tony Curran.
Fish Tank (review)
Arnold’s profile expanded even further when she decided to return to more familiar territory, in tune with her shorts, for her next film. Set within areas of Britain not often captured on film, Fish Tank is a coming-of-age tale revolving around a 15-year old girl, Mia, who dreams of getting out of East London through street-dancing. When not fighting with other girls, or wandering around East London, Mia finds herself in constant conflict with her mother Joanne. Things are further complicated when Mia forges a relationship with her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor, the only semblance of hope in her chaotic and alienated life.
With the help of the UK Film Council and BBC Films, the six-week shoot began in late July of 2008. Filmed entirely in East London, Arnold did something unusual in shooting the film chronologically. She also presented it entirely in 1:33:1 full-frame aspect ratio rather than the more common widescreen format. To further enhance the tension between Mia and her family, Arnold acquired the acting talents of Kierston Wareing as Mia’s mother and the German-Irish actor Michael Fassbender to play Connor. For the role of Mia, Arnold auditioned a lot of young women. However, it was her casting assistants who discovered non-actor Katie Jarvis while observing her arguing with her boyfriend in a train station.
While Arnold hadn’t used music prominently in her previous features, she decided to make the music a key element in this film. Particularly the genre of hip-hop as it was very popular amongst teens in the lower-class areas of Britain. Alongside music supervisor Liz Gallacher, Arnold was able to compile the kind of music that fueled Mia’s drive for dancing. Interestingly, the centrepiece of film does not include a hip-hop song, but rather Bobby Womack’s cover of the Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’.
Fish Tank made its premiere at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and was another hit for Arnold. The film shared the third-place Jury Prize with Chan-wook Park’s vampire film Thirst. Upon its theatrical release in Britain, Fish Tank was both a critical and commercial success. The buzz around the film gained the attention of American independent film distributor IFC Films, who eventually handled the limited U.S. release. Fish Tank became a big art-house hit in the States and landed on several critics’ “best of the year” polls.
Wuthering Heights (review)
The worldwide success of Fish Tank not only made Andrea Arnold an important figure in British cinema but also gave her chance to tackle any project she wanted. Arnold decided to take on an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights that had been in development for several years. Collaborating with screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, Arnold knew that adapting a widely revered book, which had already spawned several film and television retellings, would be a challenging task.
Arnold made some very radical decisions in her deconstructive approach to the troubled love story of Heathcliff and Catherine. One change involved setting the film in desolate landscapes in the north of Britain instead of more traditional locations. This allowed Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan to create a more naturalistic feel. Another striking decision by Arnold was making Heathcliff black instead of white; something that was considered shocking to many even in 2011. For the role Heathcliff at different ages, Arnold cast James Howson and Solomon Glave as the adult and adolescent versions respectively. Keeping with the use of unknown actors in the film, Shannon Beer was picked for the role of the adolescent Catherine. Arnold rounded out her cast with TV actress Kaya Scodelario assuming the role of the adult version of Catherine. Once again shooting in a full-frame aspect ratio, Arnold took an intimate, and minimalist, tone with the film while still maintaining a certain level of faithfulness to the source material.
Wuthering Heights made its premiere at the 2011 Venice Film Festival that September and Cinematographer Robbie Ryan received a prize for his work. The film also played the Toronto International Film Festival a few days later and divided both audiences and critics. Despite the divisive response, the film was a modest hit in both Britain and the U.S, Wuthering Heights solidified Arnold as one of Britain’s most daring filmmakers.
With a project entitled Mag Crew in development for a possible 2014/2015 release, Andrea Arnold has already managed to become a figure that is desperately needed in cinema. Following in the tradition of such filmmakers like Ken Loach, she explores the harsh realities of British life through her own unique lens. Her fearlessness is what makes her standout from her contemporaries. Though her body of work so far has been small, Andrea Arnold has achieved a lot still early on in her career and has proven that she is a director to watch out for in the years to come.
© thevoid99 2014
Really great write up! Not a name I’m familiar with in all honesty, but one I’ll look out for. I keep meaning to check out Fish Tank though actually.
See it and get the Criterion DVD because that’s where you can see her shorts.
Not seen a one of these but I’ll seek them out now. Cheers.
I’d start with Fish Tank and then go for everything else.
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