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Backlot Bitch: Appreciation for Andrea Arnold

Andrea Arnold

This bold British director will most likely not land at the top of many critics' lists. She won't be heralded in any glitzy galas. And she most likely won't be making it onto the Oscar ballot. But the gutsy Andrea Arnold is one of my favorite working directors. She has just three features to her name, but I already can't wait to see what she's working on next.

I became a fan after viewing her second film, 2009's Fish Tank, which follows Mia, a misfit teen from a council estate, bouncing between a careless parent and uncaring surroundings. She's a tough girl with a secret talent for dance whose soft side shows through when she finds a horse chained up in an abandoned lot. When her attempt to free the animal fails, she begins to focus on freeing herself from her hostile environment.

Michael Fassbender has an incredible supporting role as her young mother's sleazy boyfriend, but the true stars of the movie are actor Katie Jarvis, who plays Mia, and the camera. Jarvis was a relative unknown; the movie's casting director overheard her fighting with her boyfriend and encouraged her to audtition. Indeed, Jarvis's acting feels so natural that it gives the film a documentary feel at times; as Mia, she remains in control of a lot of anger, but also has the intensity to lose her cool and sulk away silently.

The camera, meanwhile, follows Mia at breakneck speed as she rages across the screen, yet has the control to pause and linger on small details like light through a window or hair blowing in the wind. When Mia tries to run away, we run away with her. But when she feels conflicted, the movie appropriately paces the room anxiously with her. Heartbreaking scenes, like a dance audition, happen without almost any words from our lead.

Arnold's recently released adaptation of Wuthering Heights is an even bolder move. Here, she takes on the literary classic by Emily Brontë and adds a twist: Her take on the story of love beyond class and race gives us a nonwhite Heathcliff (James Howson, yet another talented amateur). She reasoned that Heathcliff was described as such in the book, but no filmmaker dared make the couple mixed-race.

Arnold's Wuthering Heights is a loose adaptation; the movie doesn't trace the story in its entirely, and the ending is controversial. Cathy and Heathcliff's relationship—which begins when her family takes in the abandoned boy, who does not speak English—develops in near silence. As they and their kinship grow, they are separated by Cathy's disapproving father and Heathcliff is sent away, returning as an adult to rekindle their relationship.

While I found the children's scenes damn near poetic, the Cathy and Heathcliff of young adulthood are not always likable characters. And when the film's abrupt end—a scene of an an emotionally destroyed Heathcliff in mourning—played to a sold-out audience at the screening I attended, it rendered them silent. Shocking, innovative, and unafraid to depict the darkness of her characters, Arnold has a breathless style and a knack for essaying stories that don't easily leave a viewer's mind. I hope she continues to work, to challenge her audience, and go boldly were few filmmakers dare to take their stories.

Previously: Flight Beyond Stereotypes; You Can Win an Oscar, But You Can't Win Respect

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