What differentiates Andrea Arnold’s directorial abilities from those of her contemporaries is not an innovative portrayal of unconventional subject manner that delves into the world of the non-human and the unknown, as exhibited by present-day directors trailblazing the popularized trends of futuristic sci-fi films or vampire and werewolf folkloric storylines. Arnold’s prowess is in her ability to depict the struggles of underprivileged, British working-class families with stark realism and unfaltering honesty, offering a compassionate redemption that is commonly devoid in other explorations of this social group.
Her debut work Milk (1998), exploring the deleterious effects of a miscarriage for a married couple, together with her equally laconic follow-up effort Dog (2001), about a 15-year-old girl who musters the strength to challenge her dominating boyfriend after witnessing a severely violent incident, both contain a dark, gritty realism that is overcome through the unrelenting courage of the beaten-down protagonists. Arnold’s final short-film Wasp (2003), cemented her as a daring new directorial figure brazen enough to explore of the dogged troubles of society’s underdogs, with her depiction of a young single mother (Natalie Press) struggling to balance her familial responsibilities with her desire to maintain a romantic relationship with an ex-boyfriend (Danny Dyer). This deeply empathetic and exquisitely nuanced work garnered Arnold the Sundance Short Film Prize in 2005 and an Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film that same year.
Much has been discussed in the media and among critics about the degree to which Arnold’s films are informed by her own trying background. Born in Dartford, England to two teenage parents (a 16-year-old mother and 17-year-old father), raised by a single mother with her 3 younger siblings and a high-school drop-out by the age of 16, are all demanding predicaments at the source of Arnold’s distinctively tender and complex portrayal of her characters’ arduous lives. Arnold’s response to these questions demonstrates the delicacy of directorial work in regards to the murky lines between personal experience and pure imagination, inherent in all story-based films. She rejoinders, “I think, no, they’re not autobiographical directly, but of course my life has informed my work. […] I grew up in a working-class family, so I guess you could say I write from what I know.”
Arnold’s first feature film, Red Road (2006), one third of a creative series introduced by the Advanced Party of Filmmakers to create three films directed by different directors but using the same characters, served as her breakthrough work as the cuttingly emotional narrative and deeply suspenseful plot-sequences garnered her further recognition from her cinematic peers – selection for the Palm d’Or and a Jury prize win at the Cannes Film Festival. Arnold delves into an honest and unglamorous portrayal of an obscure CCTV security operator living in the deprived Red Road Flats region in Glasgow, Scotland – the tallest resident building in Europe the at the time of their construction. The protagonist develops a stalker-like obsession with a man she observes on the cameras, an infatuation that eventually leads to the female lead, Jackie (Kate Dickie), assimilating herself in the life of the unknown man, Clyde (Tony Curran) and consequently irrevocable changes occur in both their lives that leave significance and enduring marks.
By extending her leitmotif of UK-based psychological explorations of tough social conditions and the debilitating effects these circumstances on familial ties and romantic love, Arnold’s second production, Fish Tank (2009), explores the pains of female maturation in these social contexts through a troubled, head-strong teenage girl named Mia Williams (Katie Jarvis). A propensity for alcohol and mind-altering substances, frequent run-ins with with the law and deep hostility towards the pitiful parental skills of her single mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing), all cause Williams to act-out by engaging in a clandestine sexual relationship with her mother’s latest boyfriend, Conor (Michael Fassbender). Regardless of the seemingly incurable nature of Mia’s wearisome life, Arnold’s prevailing sense of idealism triumphs as Mia’s passion for urban dance saves her from falling into more dangerous pursuits. Additionally, the film’s young hero and supporting characters are portrayed with an exhilarating sincerity and unapologetic shamelessness that echoes the empathetic nature of Arnold’s directorial style: “I always think that if you look at anyone in detail, you will have empathy for them because you recognize them as a human being, no matter what they’ve done,” Arnold claims.
Arnold’s directorial involvement in the British period-drama Wuthering Heights (2011), an adaption of Emily Brontë’s eponymous 1847 novel, deviated from her standard process of individually writing and directing her films in their entirely, as her involvement followed the sudden departure of original director, Peter Webbing, from the project before filming commenced. However, Arnold’s dedication to artistic sincerity and realism resulted in her partial involvement in the writing of the screenplay, consequently garnering her the award for Best Cinematography at the Venice Film Festival in 2011. The Oscar-winning director’s latest work, American Honey – the first of her films shot in the US – partially deviates from her standard subject matter of the deprived underdog struggling to survive in a gritty reality. The drama road-movie follows a group of misfits turned magazine salespeople travelling across the Midwest, who become immersed in an unruly lifestyle of constant partying, law-breaking and young love, in part inspired by the controversial, real-life experiences of a group of American youths in “Magazine Crews.”
Although the Palm d’Or-selected, Jury Prize-winning film’s focus on youthful debauchery is slightly removed from the more depressing sentiments of Fish Tank and Red Road, Arnold’s experience shooting the film reveals more similarities between the destitute housing estates in which her British productions were set and the real-life destitution in Midwestern regions, than she had initially expected: “I was quite upset by what I saw: closed factories and shops, huge poverty,” she reminisces. “I guess I didn’t know that, to the degree that I saw it. And drugs … loads of drugs.” Arnold’s talents comprise not only her astute directorial prowess, but also her ability to empathize with the indigence experienced by her fellow human beings in a manner devoid of romanticized naivety yet laden with heart-wrenching honesty.