I’ve now seen every short film and feature from UK director Andrea Arnold. There are only six. The short films: Dog, Milk, and Wasp. The feature films: Red Road, Fish Tank, and Wuthering Heights. It’s a body of work that I find nothing less than remarkable. Until very recently the only gap in my knowledge was Arnold’s first film, Red Road. I finally watched it, and my god, it is fantastic. Maybe not as good as Fish Tank, but that would be difficult considering how much I adore that film. Having seen all of these films, I think I can now comfortably say something bold. Other than my undying love for Christopher Nolan…
Andrea Arnold is the best director working today.
Hyperbole? Probably. When there are people like Nolan and Fincher out there it’s definitely big talk. It’s also a purely subjective and somewhat arbitrary thing to say. So let me defend my statement a little.
What I love about Andrea Arnold’s work is her camera’s eye. Where most of my favourite directors have an interest in larger compositions and detail all over the frame, Arnold goes in a completely different direction. Her last two films were both shot in open-matte Academy ratio (1.33:1 or 4×3) and when I watched Red Road, which was shot in the more traditional 1.85:1 widescreen ratio, I couldn’t help feeling that it should have been shot in 1.33:1 as well. This might all sound very technical, but I really do think the ratio of her recent films is a reflection of how Arnold views the world through a camera. Her interest isn’t in wide vistas or framing characters within an extremely detailed environment. The environment is always there, but often out of focus. Instead, the camera is constantly looking for close-ups. Close-ups on faces; close-ups on limbs and body parts; close-ups on small objects. This lends Andrea Arnold’s films a sense of intimacy I consider virtually unequalled.
Arnold leverages that intimacy to stunning effect. She takes the audience to some dark places within the inner lives of her characters. Take Jackie, the main character in Red Road, for example. What we learn about her is fairly limited, but through a sense of intimacy we come to understand a lot about her. This makes some of the twists later in the film quite shocking; the intimacy reveals new facets of her character we did not know existed. Fish Tank is very much told from Mia’s point of view, and Arnold highlights her emotions and feelings and sense of character through simple close-up shots and having the camera constantly following her from the side or from the behind.
In her latest film, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights, Arnold pushes the darkness of her focus. It’s about as bleak a film as you’re likely to ever see, and it’s all done with very little dialogue. The film could actually have been a silent film if not for the brilliant use of diegetic sound effects. Arnold’s camera lingers on specific details of the environment, and wounds on the characters, and dead animals in the grass. The tone is almost oppressively dark, but it’s saved by expressiveness. Everything feels as though it builds towards an intimate new understanding of these classic characters.
Arnold’s short films often push their characters into places that are difficult to digest. Dog, for example, has its main character begin barking like a dog in frustration a few scenes after witnessing a dog being killed. It’s a sharp thematic point, but it doesn’t build into the story as well as it should. By the time we get to her third short, Wasp, for which Arnold won an Academy Award, we can see the maturity in how she handles these third act outbursts of character. Some would say she never learned, and that the turns taken in the third act of Fish Tank are evidence of this. I politely disagree. The character actions near the end of Fish Tank may be bigger and more extreme than what came before, but they always stem naturally from the character.
The approach to sexuality in Arnold’s films is also fascinating. She presents sex very frankly, going so far as to include shots of an erect penis in Red Road—rarely seen even in art house films. In Andrea Arnold’s world, sex is a simple fact of existence, but it’s also a mode of release. Her characters are often looking for an escape from pain or victimization, and sex affords them that opportunity. They get that release, though they are never cured. In fact, the sex only ever complicates issues. What does it mean to have found a release form the darkness when that darkness only comes back bigger than ever very quickly? This question is never answered in her films, but the repercussions are explored. That third act of Fish Tank, for example, is partly an exploration of this issue. Sex isn’t a bad thing in Arnold’s films, but it isn’t a simple thing either. That’s something you rarely find in films these days.
With only three shorts and three features to her name, Andrea Arnold has cemented herself as much more than a “director to watch”. Her films reflect a point of view completely unique in the film world today, and that’s even with the obvious comparisons to Ken Loach. The intimacy with which she approaches her characters and the frankness with which she portrays their lives and stories are incredible. It’s her perspective and her style that I can’t get enough of, and the force and consistency of her vision proves it isn’t some one-off fluke. Andrea Arnold really is one of the very best directors working today.