Female Director Spotlight: Andrea Arnold’s Intimate Realism

Hey everyone! Dilara and I have decided to start a monthly female director spotlight here at Much Ado, so we can explore the amazing films of so many women in the industry whose work we believe deserves more acknowledgement, attention and/or appreciation. If you have any suggestions for directors you’d like to see here, please let us know! Gender imbalance is a deeply entrenched issue within film, and it’s disgraceful to see, especially when the work of so many women deserves much higher credit. For the first entry in this series, I’ve chosen my all-time favourite director, Andrea Arnold.


As a young, working class British woman, I often feel that British cinema does not represent my surroundings in the slightest – a feeling that I’m sure many others share when exploring the cinema of their home countries. British cinema is usually characterised by a certain middle-upper class charm, whether it be in the quaint fantasy world of Harry Potter, to elaborate costume drama reflecting on icons of the past, through to the romanticised portrayals of royalty which sanitise the distinctive class divisions that seem to be embedded within our social system. Without making this piece too political, discovering Andrea Arnold’s work provided me with access to the stories I grew up around and experienced daily, portrayed on screen with no sanctimonious sheen to dispel audience discomfort. Here was my own reality reflected at me, and for the first time, I felt represented.

mv5bmjexnzgznjcwn15bml5banbnxkftztcwotexnzm4mg-_v1_.jpgKatie Jarvis in Fish Tank (2009)

To move away from personal attachments, Arnold’s 2009 breakout work, ‘Fish Tank’, is the starting point I’d recommend for most newcomers. ‘Fish Tank’ homes in on what it feels like to have dreams of a better life, whilst being trapped in a cycle of poverty. It tells a brutal story of working class adolescence, featuring an amazing lead performance from first timer Katie Jarvis, as well as supporting roles from Michael Fassbender and a young Harry Treadaway. Arnold takes what could easily have become an over-the-top melodrama and skilfully channels it into an honest and sometimes heart-breaking portrayal of life on a council estate. The impact of neglect and misfortune on a strikingly human protagonist is incredibly moving, and it’s hard not to be deeply affected by lead character Mia’s struggle through teenage life.

‘Fish Tank’ is an easy place to start with Arnold’s work, largely because it’s indicative of the rest of her vibe, and is, currently, the peak of the brutal realism she manages to achieve throughout her filmography. That said, it can be a difficult film to get through, so be sure to check the content warnings at the end of this post if you’re likely to be triggered by anything, and perhaps try the slightly softer (but less cohesive) ‘American Honey’ instead.



For an international audience, ‘American Honey’ is probably the film that truly put Arnold on the indie film map. This 2016 road film features similar themes to ‘Fish Tank’, but this time repositions them within the American South, focusing in on the life and experiences of a teenage girl. The film is beautifully shot, lingering on the everyday landscape whilst taking full advantage of its road trip storyline; the audience moves with the camera through young Star’s new lifestyle as she navigates relationships with a band of travelling youth. The piece is not exactly heavy on the plot – American Honey as a film is most definitely an experience rather than a strict story, exploring themes rather than a point-to-point narrative – and at 2hrs 43mins may be a little on the long side for some viewers. Nonetheless, it’s such an engrossing adventure that those three hours fly by if you allow yourself to be taken in by Arnold’s familiar human realism. Once more, there are some difficult themes present here, but there are few who can handle such scenes as honestly and sensitively as Andrea Arnold.

MV5BMjI4NzMzODQ4Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTM4Nzk5OTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1333,1000_AL_Sasha Lane and Shia LaBeouf in American Honey (2016)

As with ‘Fish Tank’, the film is led by a young breakout star in her first role – Sasha Lane – who completely blends into her character and is most certainly one to watch in the future. Arnold’s decision to use unknown actors works perfectly with her directorial style, allowing full immersion into the film and an absence of distraction through any knowledge of former roles. Sasha Lane’s relative inexperience not only allows her a chance to truly shine as the lead of her first exposure, but also fully allows her to become Star in the eyes of the audience. Believability is essential in a film as character-driven as ‘American Honey’, and is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the film works so well.



MV5BMTYxNTI2MjAyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTUzODgyOA@@._V1_Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer in Wuthering Heights (2011)

Everyone has a least favourite from their most-loved director’s filmography, and for me, it’s probably ‘Wuthering Heights’. As a huge fan of the book and of gothic content in general, I believe that no film adaptation can ever truly do the original text justice – there’s just something about the atmosphere of the book that seems incredibly difficult to replicate. (This is something that Arnold admirably recognises herself, in her own love and respect for the novel.) Nonetheless, she makes a valiant effort, and there’s a lot to appreciate about her 2011 version of the story, from the beautifully shot landscapes, to the fantastic casting choices, to the rawness of the relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff. In addition, the piece provides a step away from the modernity and suffocating urban greyness of her other works, providing an opportunity for the director to show off her skills in a completely different setting.



red-road-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000.jpgRed Road (2006)

As expected, Arnold’s earlier works lack the finesse of her later films, but the concern for human emotion and the piercing realism that is characteristic of her style remains at their core. Arnold’s feature length debut film ‘Red Road’, released in 2006, focuses on a Glaswegian CCTV operator who begins following a mysterious man from her past. The film is shot using handheld cameras and natural lighting throughout, which gives Arnold’s penchant for realism an even more grounded appearance. It’s a stunning debut that lacks some of the impact of her later work, but nonetheless explores the same emotional realities of humanity that Arnold is so brilliant at capturing on camera.

MV5BMTA5Nzk0NzI4OTheQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg5NjE1MTEy._V1_Wasp (2003)

Arnold’s initial short films are also easily worth a watch, not only to observe how Arnold has grown as a storyteller, refining the complex tales and difficult subjects that she so often chooses to focus upon, but also as texts in their own right. The universal issues of stillbirth, poverty, abuse, and sexual assault are centred across these pieces and Arnold navigates such harrowing topics with a deft and unflinching hand, even in the context of the beginning of her career. I’ve included links and summaries for her three short films, ‘Milk’ (1998), ‘Dog’ (2001), and ‘Wasp’ (2003), and would recommend taking a look if you’re interested in Arnold’s style – especially if you appreciated ‘Fish Tank’; all three take a similar, introspective look at working class British life.

Milk (1998)

After the death of her child, a woman tries to cope with loss.

Dog (2001)

A teenage girl realises the cruel nature of her boyfriend.

Wasp (2003)

Zoe is a single mother, struggling to bring up her four children. When she bumps into an old flame, she is determined not to let her children get in the way of rekindling their romance.


  • This interview by Sophie Elmhirst illuminates Arnold’s childhood, her work on American Honey, and her directorial style.
  • This piece by Amy Raphael explores the earlier stages of Arnold’s career, including Fish Tank and Red Road.
  • This review by Jessica Kiang features a great analysis of why American Honey works so well, and also contains links to its coverage at Cannes.
  • This video essay by Jessica McGoff focuses on how Arnold frames loneliness in her works.



Fish Tank: child neglect, child abuse, statutory rape/sexual activity with a child, violence, blood, underage smoking, underage alcohol consumption
American Honey: graphic nudity, sexual content, alcohol consumption, sexual assault
Wuthering Heights: sexual content, childbirth, child abuse, animal cruelty, animal death, violent use of the ‘n’ slur, general violence
Red Road: sexual content, graphic nudity, rape mention, alcohol consumption, violence, self-harm
Milk: child death, sexual content
Dog: child abuse, animal abuse, animal death
Wasp: child neglect, alcohol consumption
If you have any questions about any of these triggers, or would like to know more details about the scenes they concern, please feel free to message me at @angiebouchards, or contact through the site. Also, if you’ve noticed anything I’ve missed, please let me know!

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