Director Focus: Andrea Arnold

500 Days Of Film Reviews The Work Of Director Andrea Arnold

I first encountered Andrea Arnold as a child watching Saturday morning television. Little did I realise that she would become one of my favourite film directors - one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.


Born in Kent in 1961, Arnold displayed an interest in the darker side of the human experience from an early age. After a successful transition from acting to directing, she released short movie, Wasp, in 2003. 



This stunning and heartbreaking film (about a young single mother struggling to feed and care for her four children) won the Academy Award for Best Short Film in 2005. Wasp combines devastating social realism with stunning images of nature - a combination to which Arnold would return.


Red Road - 2006

Arnold’s feature film debut came in 2006 with Red Road. The film tells the story of emotionally disconnected CCTV operator, Jackie (a superb performance from Kate Dickie), who becomes obsessed with ex-prisoner Clyde (Tony Curran).


The film, shot largely with handheld cameras and using natural light, is a dark and complex thriller full of almost unbearable tension. 


Red Road won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival - further establishing Arnold as a filmmaker to watch.


Fish Tank - 2009

Following the success of Red Road, Arnold's second film was released in 2009. Fish Tank, starring Michael Fassbender and newcomer Katie Jarvis, is about a vulnerable young girl’s sexual awakening and how that experience proves both empowering and devastating. 


Exploring important social themes, Fish Tank is (like Wasp and Red Road) deeply unsettling and challenging. Fassbender and Jarvis are superb. However, despite being warmly received by critics and winning the Jury Prize at Cannes, it was not widely screened. 


In a 2009 interview with the Telegraph, Arnold expressed frustration at Fish Tank’s limited distribution: “I definitely feel sorry more people don’t get to see my films. They aren’t inaccessible, and if people got the chance to see them, I know they’d like them. I wish cinema [owners] could be braver, or had more money to help them show films like mine.”


Wuthering Heights - 2011

In a marked departure from her previous films, 2011 saw the release of Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights. Indeed, this film was also a departure from all other versions of Emily Bronte’s novel.


Disregarding swoony romance, the movie's focus is deeper, aiming for intimate authenticity. Wuthering Heights also displays a keen sense of place. Wild nature and the moor are key characters and storytellers. You can almost feel the mud and the damp as you watch - largely thanks to Robbie Ryan’s stunning cinematography. 


In an interview with Film 4 , Arnold talked about her decision to cast black actors James Howson and Solomon Glave as Heathcliff: “for me, it was quite clear in the book that he was dark skinned. He gets called a little Lascar, which would have been an Indian seaman, and Nelly says, ‘Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen.’ I think it’s very clear that he wasn’t white. I think his difference was certainly very important in my story and very important in the book.”


While not perfect, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a remarkable and powerful adaptation, adding something different to a well known story.  


American Honey - 2016

Arnold’s latest film, 2016’s American Honey, was inspired by her experiences in the US after promoting Wuthering Heights. A spontaneous road trip turned into several years exploring America’s landscapes until the story of Star (a superb performance from newcomer Sasha Lane) and a ragtag band of magazine sellers took shape. 


As with all of her films, American Honey focuses on characters who exist on the fringes of society. In addition, as with all of her films, American Honey has an incredibly authentic atmosphere. Using a cast of mainly non-professional actors, Arnold's film feels almost like a documentary in style. 


However, the stunning shots of nature (lensed once again by Robbie Ryan) remind us that we are watching the carefully constructed work of an extremely impressive filmmaker. The movie was awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes.


American Honey is exhilarating (using music to create a tense and exciting atmosphere) and thought provoking. It explores themes of poverty and burgeoning female sexuality (the film’s sex scenes are extraordinarily intimate) that have fascinated Arnold throughout her filmmaking career.


At 2 hours and 43 minutes, American Honey is undeniably long. However, you barely feel its lengthy running time as you watch Star struggle with the realities and dangers of her existence. As tough as her life feels, there is a glimmer of hope in her resilience, her honesty and her capacity for love.


Indeed, in each of Andrea Arnold's films there lies an irresistible kernel of hope. While the lives of her characters are unquestionably hard, there is also the possibility of escape, fulfillment and joy. 

Random Observations

What is your favourite Andrea Arnold film?


Let me know by leaving me a comment in the section below!

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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones



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