There could be no bigger inspiration to an aspiring female filmmaker living in Britain today than Andrea Arnold, whose two feature length films, Red Road and Fish Tank are arguably two of the best British films of the last decade. Both relentlessly grim but ultimately hopeful, they each won the Jury Prize at Cannes and a BAFTA in their respective years. Like Ken Loach before her, Arnold not only manages to tease out truly astounding, amazingly natural performances from her actors, but she manages to capture the beauty and wonder to be found in the smallest of things, be it the wind at the top of a Glaswegian tower block or a heart-shaped balloon sailing above an Essex council estate.
Arnold began her career in the media as a dancer on Top of the Pops, and then moved to presenting Saturday morning television show No 73 in the 1980s. After her short films Milk and Dog she rose to fame with her Oscar-winning third short, Wasp. Deceptively simple in premise but stunning in execution, Wasp follows a day in the life of a single mother, who leaves her four young children in a pub car park while she tries to impress an ex-boyfriend.
In 2006 came Red Road, the story of lonely CCTV operator Jackie, who one day notices a man from her past on her screen and begins to stalk him. Long segments in which words just aren’t necessary due to Kate Dickie’s mesmerising performance makes for a tense, deeply enthralling thriller in which a brutally explicit act of revenge is overshadowed by a wonderfully subtle final moment expressing the power of human forgiveness.
Arnold followed with Fish Tank in 2009, which tells the story of Mia (first time actor Katie Jarvis), a fifteen year old girl living on an Essex council estate who has a penchant for violence, bottled cider and hip-hop dancing. Deep down, Mia just wants to be loved and accepted in a way that she never has been, and needs someone to show her the way. That someone arrives in the form of her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). The sexual tension between Mia and Connor feels so real you could reach out, grab hold of it and cut it with the proverbial knife. But of course, in the social realist tradition, nothing works out the way one would hope, but again, there is an undercurrent of hope beneath the mayhem.
Arnold’s films are not only exceptional in the way they portray the harsh beauty and grim reality of working-class life, but what is truly impressive is her focus on women and female sexuality; these are stories about women, in which the men are sexually objectified in a way that is all too rare in contemporary cinema. Arnold’s films are undeniably gritty, and despite the often immoral actions of her leading ladies, Arnold doesn’t allow us to judge or condemn them, even when they’re urinating on someone’s living room carpet. And that is no small feat.