Arnold first garnered critical acclaim with the debut of the short film Wasp at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It won the Short Film Prize and Arnold was also awarded an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film that same year. The film, just 24 minutes long, expertly depicts a day in the life of a single mother (Nathalie Press) and her 4 children. A supremely simple concept, the film itself is filled with tension, joy, and heartache -- and manages never to pass judgment on this young mother for her neglectful behavior.
Arnold again worked with Press in her first full-length project, Red Road, being the first entry in the Advance Party trilogy of films depicting the same characters by different producers and directors. The concept of the trilogy was developed by Lars von Trier among others, envisioning a vehicle for first time filmmakers to write and direct their own stories. Profiles were provided for the main characters; besides these required essentials, the directors were free to develop the characters in whatever time, place, and situation they liked. Arnold's entry for the series has been called "one of the best British films of the last 25 years," winning the Jury Prize at Cannes.
Fish Tank is Arnold's most accomplished piece to date (also having won the Jury Prize in 2009 at Cannes). A story about the awkwardness of a teenage girl's transition into womanhood, it introduces Mia -- a tough, street-wise loner -- with all the fondness of a tender mother. Mia (newcomer Katie Jarvis) is young enough to still want her mother's guidance but experienced enough to know she won't get it as long as her mother is chasing the man of the week. Instead, she spends her time doing the only thing she is talented at or passionate about: dancing. Some of the most powerful scenes in the film are when Mia is alone and moving to hip-hop beats the audience cannot hear, witnessing intimate moments never meant to be seen by anyone. We get the sense that not only is she guarded with others, but that it has taken months for Mia to even be vulnerable with herself. Arnold's direction shines as Michael Fassbender (playing Connor, Mia's mother's boyfriend) encourages Mia in her dancing and she develops a crush; scenes that could have been heavy-handed or creepy were instead touching, realistic portraits of confusing teenage affection. Arnold has a palpable soft spot for girls like Mia, covering her mostly-bleak story in slivers of hope due to the character's tenacity. Fish Tank was also shot chronologically, the actors being given only that day's scenes to facilitate the insecurity of not knowing the outcomes of their actions; the result is a raw, truthful snapshot of a life not so different from Arnolds' own.
Most recently, Arnold adapted Wuthering Heights into a stripped down, contemporary version of the love story that is dividing critics. It has all the hallmarks of her storytelling style but is her first foray into adapted content. Unconventional choices (such as casting black actor James Howson as Heathcliff) caused some controversy, but the film was received favorably at festivals for its stunning, moody visuals.
Arnold's stories are ultimately about women who are lost and looking for love amidst the harsh realities of working-class life. Each one is exploring sexuality, seeing men as either objects, saviors, or mistakes; such perspectives are often missing from film. Her work is usually excellent; always provocative; and worth exploring.
Wasp can be viewed in its entirety on Vimeo (embedded below).
Red Road and Wuthering Heights are available OnDemand and through Netflix DVDs.
Fish Tank is available for streaming on Netflix.