Andrea Arnold came late to filmmaking, but avoiding being shaped by a youthful adherence to conventional expectations or being thrust into a role of creative control before she was ready has ultimately served the English writer/director well. Each of her three features to date – 2006’s Red Road, 2009’s Fish Tank, and 2011’s Wuthering Heights – are physically precise and emotionally intimate, each film a pocket universe that Arnold has visually conjured from a single image that she cannot shake. “I have absolutely no thought about making a judgment on what has gone before or making a judgment about other filmmakers,” Arnold once explained to me. “I try to make something truthful in my own way.”
Arnold was the eldest of four children, born when her mother was just 16-years-old and raised without her father, who grew up in a working class community in the Kent town of Dartford. She’s often said that she’s obsessed with trying to determine how people turn out the way they do, although in her case it was a curious journey from a dance-obsessed child with a dark artistic streak through to work in London as an actor and children’s television presenter and finally studying film in Los Angeles that led her into making short films (including Wasp, which won the 2004 Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film) and then writing and directing features.
Each of her three features have had an almost palpable sense of time and place, whether that’s the Glasgow control room for a series of closed circuit television camera in Red Road or the bleak, brutal Yorkshire moors of the 19th century in Wuthering Heights. Her camera is alert to the unsaid implication and the uncertain glance, with aggression or the threat of violence as a means of emotional punctuation or even satisfaction. Arnold’s next feature, American Honey, is set where the title suggests, and it may well be that she has, for now, exhausted Britain as a setting, having drawn all she could from the everyday realities of council estate life or a blighted history. But wherever she goes, she’ll adhere to her own vision. An Andrea Arnold film, first and foremost, is always an Andrea Arnold film.
For a double dose of Andrea Arnold from SBS’s On Demand service, try the following pairing:
Andrea Arnold got a performance for the ages from Essex teenager Katie Jarvis, who had never acted before (or even considered) but was discovered by one of the movie’s casting agents at a train station after having a loud and public argument with her then boyfriend. Jarvis was able to not only capture but amplify the anger and uncertainty bubbling through Mia, a 15-year-old living on a council estate who rows with both her single mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), and her younger sister, Tyler (Rebecca Griffiths); at times they’re less a family than rivals, particularly as Joanne feels threatened by her daughter’s march towards adulthood. Mia is combative but curious, and it’s only when she dances that she senses the possibility of satisfaction.
There’s an elemental quality to Arnold’s compelling depiction of these working class lives, and symbolic moments have a powerful reach when they’re sense through Mia’s eyes. It is a coming of age story that refuses to explain or notate the turning points in Mia’s life, and there’s a terrifically understated turn from Michael Fassbender (post-Hunger, pre-blockbusters) as Joanne’s latest boyfriend, an Irishman who takes an interest in Mia that suggests another unsettling outcome. It’s one thing to want freedom, Fish Tank suggests, but it’s quite another to achieve it, let alone know what to do with. That’s the mark of a complex, evocative film.
Andrea Arnold took on a distinctly different for her third feature, adapting – with Olivia Hetreed – and directing a version of Emily Bronte’s oft-filmed 1847 novel. This was a revisionist take, sometimes spare and often suffused with suffering, that didn’t turn the romantic desire of the story into grand melodrama. There is nothing picturesque about the Yorkshire moors as shot by cinematographer Robbie Ryan and crossed by a farm owner, Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), who brings home a young orphan (Solomon Glave), who will be forcible christened Heathcliff – not even a new name takes easily in such a trying environment.
Matching the original text, Heathcliff is dark-skinned, making race part of his ordeal at the hands of Earnshaw’s son, Hindley (Lee Shaw), even as he becomes intertwined with the family’s daughter, Cathy (Shannon Beer). As in Fish Tank, the tentative, unspoken beginnings of a bond are handled with great empathy. The setting is stripped of period finery until the second half, which picks up with Heathcliff (James Howson) and Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) older but not particularly wiser. “There’s only now,” he tells her after they’re reunited, and that could sum up Arnold’s picture – the extraneous has been removed leaving just two people trying to make sense of what they share. This is a long way from previous incarnations, such as William Wyler’s 1939 success with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, and the divergence is fascinating.