Andrea Arnold's Intimate, Social-Realist Cinema

Andrea Arnold celebrated her 58th birthday last Friday. She has directed four features so far in her career but the influence has been such that she is already considered as one of the most important women filmmakers in the history of cinema. Three of her films—Red Road, Fish Tank and American Honey have won the Jury Prize at Cannes Film Festival, a record she ties with another great British filmmaker Ken Loach. She was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011 for her services to the film industry. Her films are centered on female, working-class characters and are marked by simple, unsettling images and intricate editing, their surface harshness is shot through with complexity and compassion.

Andrea Arnold's Intimate, Social-Realist Cinema Andrea Arnold's Intimate, Social-Realist Cinema Source : Pinterest


Andrea Arnold successfully competes with their male counterparts, having something to say for and about the position of men, women and children in contemporary society. Her style is ‘social realist' which conveys societal anxieties existing prior to the new millennium. Social realist filmmaking is viewed as a rich tradition in Britain and arguably a trajectory can be traced from the 1930s' documentary movement, with the work of filmmakers such as John Grierson and Harry Watt.



Andrea Arnold moved away from the style of filmmakers such as Loach and Leigh to produce what Forrest terms ‘new realism'. Forrest perceives a radical transformation in contemporary realism with ‘a more thematically diverse, expressive, ambiguous and author-driven address ... that has challenged the dominance of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh'. As a result, the films use social and political agendas as a backdrop, but deploy ‘a poetic and aesthetically bold approach to their subject matter, which merges traditional thematic concerns with expressive art cinema templates'. Forrest argues that there are similarities between the work of some 1960s British directors and that of a number of contemporary filmmakers such as Arnold, who ‘share with the New Wave practitioners a grounding in a philosophy that identifies cinema as an artistically vital medium first, and a facilitator of socio-political substance second'. For him, landscape is at the forefront of this new realism, and ‘the organization of foregrounded images and the realization of their figurative potentials act as the main conveyors of meaning within this aesthetic approach'. For Forrest, the changes result in a lyrical style particularly associated with the work of Arnold. Indeed, as he observes, many of these new millennium films ‘are imbued with a freshness by their grounding in, and subsequent reassessment of, the traditional platforms of realist cinema'.


Arnold prefers to work in a filmmaking mode which is ‘small, intense and heartfelt', and on a low budget, her films are visually and narratively taxing, presented in an observational style. Arnold's oeuvre focuses on female isolation and adversity. Actor Tony Curran has commented, Arnold "has a real instinct and sensitivity, she has an eye for detail about all the small things in life...I felt I could trust what she was wanting. I said to myself ‘Right if she wants to do these things then let's make it as truthful and real as possible'".


In her debut film Red Road, Arnold uses ‘an impressionist-realist style via wandering hand-held camerawork and shifting focal planes' to offer the spectator a British version of film noir. Red Road's melodramatic form is confirmed through the opening and closing sequences of the film, introducing the spectator to the ordinary lives of the film's protagonists at night, the ending offering positive closure and patterning in morning daylight. These aspects also arise from the film's use of innocence, utopia and nostalgia; as Stewart observes, the ‘Photographs of her family surround Jackie when she returns at last to her in-laws' home and it is a ‘photo of a cherished memory that provides her with a location for her daughter and husband's ashes'. Red Road is first artistic and second socio-politically motivated and, whereas dialogue is important to filmmakers such as Loach and Leigh, Arnold emphasises setting and privileges image over the narrative.


Arnold's mise-en-scène includes striking imagery, at times seemingly surplus to narrative requirements. As Forrest argues, this ‘use of stylistic and image-led features, as opposed to orthodox naturalistic, observational aesthetics, shows the manner in which new realist cinema in Britain is signaling a changing of priorities where the depiction of reality - while still central - is increasingly open to a broader range of approaches.'


Arnold is single-minded in her approach, as displayed when she cast Heathcliff as black in her 2011 adaptation of Emily Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights, in her words, ‘No one was going to stop me doing what I wanted to do, but eyebrows were raised'. In terms of authorial control, Arnold acted as both director and writer of the script, believing that it is important to be in command of both ‘because you understand the script so well and you can change things as you go, cut stuff that's not working and try to improve as you go. You know the material inside out and can be very instinctive when working'. For Michael Stewart, the film is an example of European traductive realism, which pushes narrative with ‘no obligation to engage with specific questions or representations of the national', combined with melodrama. Indeed, Arnold uses the melodramatic tropes of narrative and character in script and direction to emphasise ‘familialism and redemption; and the nomination of its central character as a woman and mother'. Yet the film's traductive realism, for Stewart, pushes narrative realism closer to the avant-garde to approach abjection.


Arnold's Fish Tank defies many of the parameters set out by the genre's earlier counterparts, instead focusing on ‘desperate girls' and dispossessed youth through an elegiac optic. The director again insisted on using hand-held cameras to uncover the raw side of life on an Essex housing estate, using her usual cinematographer Robbie Ryan, and once again she stipulated that the footage and acting was to look as natural as possible. According to Ryan, Arnold does not do rehearsals. In fact, only the crew and the director had read the script beforehand, and the actors were not allowed to view it until the day before filming. As he says, ‘So they were in the dark, basically. Andrea and I went for a meeting before the film was shot. We sat down and tried to think of a plan, an approach. And really ... there is no approach'. The film offers: ‘a move away from a traditionally close engagement with real issues and towards a wider concern for the way images and sounds can render reality as an art-cinema-inclined impulse in realist cinema at the expense of an inward-looking thematic emphasis'.



In Wuthering Heights, Arnold again introduces the view of an outsider looking in. Arnold's Heathcliff is a black homeless boy found on the streets of Liverpool and taken home by Cathy's (young Cathy-Shannon Beer/older Cathy-Kaye Scodelario) soon-to-be-deceased father to be raised with his family. Furthermore, Cathy, though not an outsider looking in, is destined to a life of unhappiness and she becomes socially distanced from her own background, and reluctant to accept her new surroundings through her marriage to Edgar Linton (James Northcote). From the outset, the story is told from Heathcliff's perspective, a ‘shift ... suited to Arnold's more impressionistic style, which is also indicative of the more "art-house" target audience of the film and, one suspects, the production's budget'. Describing her impressions of Heathcliff, she states, ‘When I re-read it after many years I found myself fretting about Heathcliff. The ultimate outsider. A vertical invader. I wanted to make it for him. The way he was treated as a boy. The brutality. The way he then turns out. A product of his experience, or of his true nature?'


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Reference: Stella Hockenhull-British Women Film Directors in the New Millennium, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2010


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