Why this might not seem so easy
At a glance, tackling the work of Andrea Arnold from scratch might seem like a doddle. With just four features to her name (the upcoming documentary Cow will be her fifth), Arnold has directed more hours of prestige television than she has cinema, with her most recent project being the easily digestible second season of awards-magnet HBO drama Big Little Lies.
Arnold is considered one of the pre-eminent artists of contemporary British cinema for a reason, however. This is a filmmaker of authenticity in the vein of ‘gritty’ Brit social realists like Ken Loach and Alan Clarke, and she has been generously garlanded for it. Having won an Oscar before she even graduated to features (for short film Wasp, in 2005), Arnold has since won the jury prize at Cannes three times, more than anyone in history bar Loach – a director with a 26-film catalogue.
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The subject matter of much of Arnold’s work makes approaching it more daunting still. Excepting her TV work, Arnold finds the worlds of her films at the fringes, where young, often emotionally volatile people struggle to find their ideal existence within the confines of suffocating working-class milieus.
Arnold’s films are experiential, but the experience can be overwhelming. The director herself once joked: “Don’t watch them back-to-back. Leave a week in between.”
The best place to start – Fish Tank
All of Arnold’s films present an intoxicating fusion of the real and the cinematic. Mixing professional and non-professional actors, scenes are part scripted and part improvised. They’re filmed in genuinely lived-in environments, which are lent poetic lustre by Arnold’s regular cinematographer Robbie Ryan.
Fish Tank (2009) is the finest example yet of the director’s signature blend. Starring Katie Jarvis as Mia, a teen tearaway with dreams of becoming a dancer, and Michael Fassbender as Conor, the sexy but secretive new boyfriend to Mia’s perpetually dissatisfied mother (Kierston Wareing), the film looks less shot and more captured over one summer in the concrete wilds of east London.
A coming-of-age movie first, Fish Tank also makes for a satisfying mystery story, as the too-good-to-be-true Conor’s background and intentions are gradually teased out. Fassbender, here on the cusp of mainstream stardom, is charming as the devil as the chummy father figure crossing the line over to romantic interest for 15-year-old Mia. But it’s Jarvis who is the film’s standout. Cast by Arnold after an assistant discovered her arguing on the street with her boyfriend, Jarvis – by-turns headstrong, vicious, vulnerable – is genuine in a way only untrained first-time performers can be.
What to watch next
Arnold always has a keen sense of the personality of a place, but seemingly never has the director had more fun than she does examining all the myriad personalities of the modern United States in American Honey (2016). On the fabled Great Plains, the film’s hard-partying ‘mag crew’ (travelling magazine sellers, among them Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Sasha Lane) find pockets of civilisation of grossly varying experience: oil fields populated by horndog roughnecks; enclaves of luxury housing where wealthy men style themselves as cowboys; poverty-blighted trailer parks home to under-nourished children and casualties of the great opioid crisis.
In the tradition of so many American road movies made by non-Americans, American Honey is a vision of a US both massive and eccentric. It’s a strange land of opportunity for someone like Lane’s troubled Star, but one which then again might just swallow her up.
From American Honey all the way back to her early shorts, Arnold’s primary interest has been in bracing psychological portraits of young women. In Milk (1998), a would-be new mother skips her stillborn child’s funeral for a drunken drive with a stranger. In Dog (2001), a teen girl ditches her witless boyfriend after he interrupts their fumbling sex to kick a dog to death. In Wasp (2003), Arnold’s best short work, a single mother (Natalie Press) pursues an old flame (Danny Dyer) while trying to keep her four children and precarious financial situation a secret from him. Shot around Arnold’s native Dartford, Wasp is a time capsule of early-2000s Britain, complete with Bacardi Breezers, DJ Otzi and a still-lingering national obsession with Posh and Becks.
Fresh off Oscar victory for Wasp, Arnold was challenged along with two other first-time directors to make one in a proposed trilogy of Scotland-set films for Lone Scherfig and Lars von Trier’s Advance Party project. The same characters and actors were to feature across all three films. The trilogy was never completed, but Arnold’s contribution, the thriller Red Road (2006), stands confidently alone. Arnold’s debut, about a lonely CCTV operator (Kate Dickie) stalking a ghost from her past (Tony Curran) across the streets of Glasgow, showed her immediate style was already fully realised. There are also echoes of the work of Michael Haneke and von Trier himself in its arctic detachment.
Even chillier is Wuthering Heights, Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Emily Brontë’s tormented romantic saga set on the Yorkshire moors. Misidentified on release as an unconventional take on a classic, with particular focus going to Arnold’s decision to cast the mixed-race James Howson as Heathcliff (a character plainly depicted as ethnically ambiguous in Brontë’s novel), the film actually looks like one of the more faithful interpretations.
If Cathy (Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff remain curiously somewhat at a distance throughout, Arnold’s film at least matches the desolate poetry of Brontë’s prose. The director’s usual urban cacophony is replaced by a remorseless soundtrack of wind and rain, and Robbie Ryan’s ever-searching camera roams an endless, untamed wilderness.
Where not to start
Arnold already had ample television experience prior to being called up by HBO. She’d worked as a presenter and writer on children’s TV early in her career, directed an episode of Channel 4 anthology series Coming Up in 2003, and more recently episodes of Transparent and I Love Dick for Amazon. But being handed the reins to Big Little Lies’ second season in its entirety looked like her best opportunity yet to bring her individual stamp to TV.
Following a 2018 shoot with Arnold at the helm, however, executive producer and season one director Jean-Marc Vallée took over production, overseeing reshoots and re-editing Arnold’s initial cut. Although the end result is still entertaining as high-end soap opera, Big Little Lies 2 is that rare Arnold creation that doesn’t look much like an Arnold work at all.