Though she’s directed just four features (and a number of shorts and TV episodes), Andrea Arnold has one of the most distinctive voices in cinema today. She brings realism and an unexpected beauty to her work, whether her films are set in British public housing, rural America, or the 18th century moors.
Arnold is a master of subtle details and a gritty approach where others might lean toward gloss, but where she really stands out is in finding the perfect person for each role and crafting a character with them. Whether she’s working with amateur actors, ones just about to hit their big break, or experienced pros, she makes a perfect match.
To celebrate her birthday (and general genius), I’m counting down her films in order from solid to nearly perfect.
4. Wuthering Heights (2011)
Even though I’m ranking it fourth, Arnold herself may be her toughest critic on this adaptation. At a 2016 Tribeca Film Festival event, she said, “It was a difficult experience making it, for various reasons. I find it hard to look at it.” While it may be difficult for her to look at, Wuthering Heights was her strongest film visually to date at the time. Arnold has always worked with director of photography Robbie Ryan on her films, but there’s a special magic here, capturing the moors in all their foggy, muddy beauty.
Some adaptations of Emily Brontë’s novel have been overly stuffy, but Arnold leans into the grit and darkness of the gothic classic. She also takes a less sentimental approach to the material than previous directors have, which doesn’t always resonate with fans of the book. If you’re expecting to swoon at the romance between Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) and Heathcliff (James Howson), this may not be the period film for you. But even at its least engaging moments, it’s still a fascinating and fresh take on a novel that’s been adapted dozens of times.
3. Red Road (2007)
As feature debuts go, Red Road is a marvel, fully deserving of all the praise heaped on it when it premiered at Cannes. Game of Thrones‘ Kate Dickie stars as Jackie, a woman who is paid to watch CCTV. Her special interest in a man she sees (Tony Curran) goes beyond the call of duty as she orchestrates an in-person meeting, which leads to more interaction between the two. Though the stalker thriller is relatively common in cinema (Fatal Attraction, One Hour Photo, and more), Arnold’s first film is a spare, but still unnerving entry in the subgenre. There’s also far more going on beyond romantic obsession here, and Dickie and Curran’s performances elevate the strong script and direction from Arnold.
Red Road was conceived as part of Lone Scherfig and Anders Thomas Jensen’s Advance Party trio of films, which allowed each director involved to bring his or her individual stamp to the same characters and actors. The second film, Donkeys, is less known, and the third film has yet to be made.
2. American Honey (2016)
Arnold explores the coming-of-age concept elsewhere in both Wuthering Heights and Fish Tank, but it’s never so sprawling as it is with this 162-minute film. Newcomer Sasha Lane plays Star, a teen who runs away to join a group of traveling magazine sellers. Lane (who was just cast in indie film Shotgun) feels like a remarkable discovery, with an authenticity that would be hard to replicate from a more experienced actress, though she has great chemistry with co-stars Shia LaBeouf and Riley Keough.
Though she’s an English director, this film is–as its title implies–an American story, and it feels as rooted in the United States as if Arnold had spent her life here. There’s a wonderful, detailed sense of place and people that is often absent from others’ work. At nearly three hours, it might go on a bit long, but there’s a sense of immediacy and vitality in almost every minute that make it hard to complain too much.
Another film that found Arnold working with untrained actors, Fish Tank is a realist take on British working-class adolescence, streaked with tension and discomfort. First-time actress Katie Jarvis is mesmerizing as 15-year-old Mia, whose life is upended by the arrival of her mother’s new boyfriend Conor (Michael Fassbender). Released the same year as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank was an indicator of the fame to come for the actor with a performance that makes the audience genuinely uncomfortable with what is happening on screen and their reaction to it. Jarvis was discovered while fighting at a train station with her boyfriend, and that anger and vulnerability comes through clearly in her role as Mia.
What’s most striking about Fish Tank is Arnold’s lack of judgment toward her characters. This is a film of ambiguities, whose questions stick with you days–and years–after you watch it. The soundtrack featuring Eric B. & Rakim, Toots & The Maytals, Bobby Womack, and more is just as difficult to get out of your head.