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Scars on the soul

Andrea Arnold and Lynne Ramsay both emerged around the turn of the twenty-first century, bringing a new, raw energy to British cinema. Both filmmakers excel in female portraits: even when the subject is a run-of-the-mill dairy cow. This autumn, they are the joint focus of the film programme Britain’s Brightest.

By Belinda van de Graaf15 December 2023

Playing, a boy wraps himself in a curtain – only for his mother to roughly drag him out. There’s no place for daydreaming and games in 1970s Glasgow. In Lynne Ramsay’s debut, Ratcatcher (1999), the young boy in question is shoved by his toiling mother back into everyday reality. A reality made up of their semi-derelict tenement house, a father seeking refuge in drink, and waste that is not collected but piles up, rotting, in the streets.

still from Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, GB 1999)

still from Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, GB 1999)

still from Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, GB 1999)

still from Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, GB 1999)

Ramsay was born in 1969 in Glasgow, Scotland, and grew up in the 70s in the working class neighbourhood where Ratcatcher is set. Ramsay’s mother was a cleaner and her father worked at the docks, among other things. But the raw realism of Ratcatcher is not just a reworking of the ‘kitchen sink’ social realism in which British filmmakers have excelled since the 1950s.

A quick impression: in 1956, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger was a watershed moment. This was the first play to feature a working-class protagonist. In 1959, it was filmed by Tony Richardson, with Richard Burton in the role of the street vendor who rages against the upper middle class. Another pioneer of this new realism in the United Kingdom was Karel Reisz, whose Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) focuses on the life of a young factory worker. This had never been seen before.

Ken Loach gave this school of realism a new impulse in the 1960s with his first films Poor Cow (1967) and most notably Kes (1969), the story of a young boy from a deprived area in the north of England who decides to train a young kestrel. These fiction films in a documentary style, either with amateurs in the leading roles or a mix of well-known and up-and-coming talent, and dealing with the trials and tribulations of the British working class, became an increasingly common feature of British cinema.

Red balloon

Lynne Ramsay’s films fit into this British film tradition, as do Andrea Arnold’s – but they are also distinctively different. In Ratcatcher, Ramsay focuses on 12-year-old James, who pushes a friend in while messing about beside a stinking canal. The boy drowns, after which James lives on with a gnawing sense of guilt. We experience the harsh lives of his family members and neighbours from the perspective of this pale young kid. However, in Ratcatcher, a mouse tied to a big, red balloon can also suddenly fly off into space. Surrealism seeps into Ramsay’s realism.

James is also able to get on a bus and for thirty pence bus fare leave the bleak reality of the city and its plague of rats behind, and run off into a cornfield. As for Ramsay herself, who left Glasgow aged seventeen to study fine art and photography in Edinburgh, then later directing and photography in London, there is hope for James and his family – and maybe a way out.

The woman who watches

As Ratcatcher deviates from standard realism, so too does the work of Andrea Arnold, who was likewise recognised as a new British talent for her debut Red Road (2006). The debut films of both directors were immediately selected for the Cannes film festival. What they add could be described as a lyrical realism, in which complex thoughts and emotions unfold.

Red Road
is set in an area of Glasgow that is, if possible, even bleaker than in Ratcatcher. The story is constructed around a gigantic condemned block of flats – at the time the tallest in Europe – inhabited mainly by former convicts. In this neighbourhood we meet Jackie, a woman with scars on her soul who comes across a recently released prisoner through her work as a security guard, and starts to follow him.

still from Red Road (Andrea Arnold, GB/DK 2006)

still uit Red Road (Andrea Arnold, GB/DK 2006)

still from Red Road (Andrea Arnold, GB/DK 2006)

still uit Red Road (Andrea Arnold, GB/DK 2006)

Like Ratcatcher, Red Road feels ominous; death plays a major role in both films. Death and resurrection. Arnold creates a tension in the film that is almost hypnotic. What has happened? What is driving this woman? What is she looking for? What does she want from the man she is tracking so obsessively? Sex? Revenge? Or is it part of a process of grieving?

One thing is certain: Arnold and Ramsay give us female portraits that break through the norm. In Red Road, it is the woman who watches and the man who is watched. The same can be said of Arnold’s second film Fish Tank (2009), about angry teenage girl Mia, full of fire and fury and played by Katie Jarvis, who Arnold found at a railway station, having a blazing row with her boyfriend.

In Fish Tank, once again set in a dreary suburb, Mia is attracted to the boyfriend of her young mother, who passes her days drinking, smoking and having sex. Mia watches him when he appears one morning, half naked, in the kitchen. Her eyes roam across his back: Michael Fassbender’s back. The erotic tension is palpable, and builds to a climax that occurs when one evening 15-year-old Mia loses her virginity to him.

still from Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, GB/NL 2009)

still uit Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, GB/NL 2009)

still from Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, GB/NL 2009)

still uit Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, GB/NL 2009)

Dancing

Andrea Arnold has a way with working class, female outsiders. She was born in 1961, the result of a short-lived teenage love affair in Dartford (Kent, UK). Her mother was sixteen, her father seventeen. “I grew up in a working class area, a suburb, there wasn’t much supervision at home, situations were frequently unpredictable. I think that made me very perceptive”, Arnold has said during an interview in Cannes.

In the same way that Mia, the 15-year-old school-leaver in Fish Tank, expresses herself by dancing, Andrea Arnold also left school at the age of sixteen and, in a roundabout way, ended up working in television. She had all kinds of jobs as a dancer, actor and presenter before, years later, realising that she preferred to be behind the camera. And just maybe, she thought then, her own stories – which she had been writing from an early age – might be worth filming. Following her career in television, Arnold studied film, releasing her feature debut at the age of 37.

Wild beach holiday

Lynne Ramsay also had second thoughts. She made the switch from university in Edinburgh to the film academy in London after seeing Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a short experimental, surrealist film by American filmmaker and artist Maya Deren. This influence can be seen in Ramsay’s second film, Morvern Callar (2002), with the fantastic Samantha Morton in the title role.

Morton plays a young Scottish woman who works filling shelves, who one morning finds her boyfriend dead under the Christmas tree. He has committed suicide, leaving behind an unpublished novel – all Morvern has to do is send it to a publisher. Her boyfriend, oh vanity of vanities, was hoping for posthumous literary fame.

still from Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, GB 2002)

still uit Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, GB 2002)

still from Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, GB 2002)

still uit Morvern Callar (Lynne Ramsay, GB 2002)

One thing we see time and again in Ramsay and Arnold’s work: young women doing things their way. Morvern simply puts her name to the manuscript and then sets off with her best friend – and a generous advance from the publisher – for a wild beach holiday in Spain. Morvern hardly speaks; Ramsay trusts to images and sound to put her energy across, as well as the electronic music of Aphex Twin, which more or less bears Morvern along.

In her third film We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ramsay once again transports us into the thoughts and feelings of a woman. Her film version of Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same title deals with a mother, played by Tilda Swinton, forced to live with the fact that her son has unleashed a bloodbath at school. Swinton puts in a strong performance as the lonely, tormented spirit who in the eyes of those around her gave birth to a monster. Red, the colour of blood, is everywhere in Ramsay’s psychological horror.

still from We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, GB/US 2011)

still uit We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, GB/US 2011)

still from We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, GB/US 2011)

still uit We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, GB/US 2011)

Destructive love

In exactly the same way, the colour of mud dominates Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, released the same year. In the spring of 2011, We Need To Talk About Kevin competed in Cannes; Wuthering Heights in Venice in the autumn of 2011.

It’s perhaps not so surprising that in Wuthering Heights – her stunning, raw film of Emily Brontë’s novel – Arnold chooses the side of impoverished Heathcliff, the stranger, the outsider. “I film what I know”, Arnold has said in interviews.

Wuthering Heights
is a novel from 1847 that deals with the intense, tumultuous, destructive love between Cathy and Heathcliff, who blows into her life one day. What gives Arnold’s film its tension is that life in these nineteenth-century English hills forms the backdrop to a dark, sensual world in which – just like in Ramsay’s Spanish adventure Morvern Callar – there is little dialogue, but all the more emotion. One of Arnold’s favourite books is Sculpting in Time by Andrei Tarkovsky. From him she learned not to speak the emotions, but to allow the audience to see and feel them.

still from Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, GB 2013)

still uit Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, GB 2013)

still from Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, GB 2013)

still uit Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, GB 2013)

Avenging angel

As far as this seeing and feeling is concerned, Ramsay also uses both to great effect in You Were Never Really Here (2017). This, her fourth film, could even be seen as the perfect pre-MeToo thriller. At first sight, this is a film about an American conflict veteran like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Joaquin Phoenix, lauded as best actor in Cannes, is almost unrecognisable, carrying a lot of extra pounds and an unruly beard. He plays Joe, a man with a past – and a hammer. We see flashes of a violent father and a horrific war.

Joe works as a contract killer in New York. A taciturn character, who goes about his business calmly and with precision. His latest mission: to rescue the underage daughter of a well-known politician from a brothel in Manhattan. What ensues is a razor-sharp thriller; a searingly hot trip through hell in which Ramsay reveals a perverse world of men who abuse their power to satisfy their sexual urges, then use their wealth and influence to get away with it.

still from You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, GB/FR/US, 2017)

still uit You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, GB/FR/US, 2017)

still from You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, GB/FR/US, 2017)

still uit You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, GB/FR/US, 2017)

Another outstanding aspect of the film is that in a fabulous, feminist-inspired role reversal Ramsay gives Nina, the girl, her power back. Nina is not the traditional victim; in fact, she turns out to be an avenging angel – maybe it’s actually she who saves Joe. Joe, the lost soul who grew up in a world of male violence. Mia, who experiences this too, but perhaps gets out just in time.

Run-of-the-mill dairy cow

It’s certainly not the case that European directors who go to America to make a film are always successful. But Ramsay succeeded brilliantly with You Were Never Really Here, and the same applies to Arnold’s American Honey (2016). Perhaps because both of these filmmakers stay close to their own imaginations, their own strong senses of style.

Arnold went to America to make a road movie, and to slake a thirst for the mythical landscape of the Midwest. Nevertheless, American Honey is hardly any different from her UK-based work. Once again, she concentrates on outsiders, on the rough underbelly and the effects of disorientation: something that permeates her entire oeuvre.

In American Honey, 18-year-old Star hooks up with a bunch of young people travelling to Kansas in a van to sell magazine subscriptions door-to-door. They smoke weed, drink, make out, sing and enjoy themselves. A free, happy life, it seems – until Star realises that this anarchistic group does have rules, and that there is a leader who plays the strong off against the weaker members. A society in microcosm with a boss and employees who are punished if they speak out of turn or don’t do their best. And of course, the female boss wants the male top salesman for herself.

still from American Honey (Andrea Arnold, GB/US 2016)

still uit American Honey (Andrea Arnold, GB/US 2016)

still from American Honey (Andrea Arnold, GB/US 2016)

still uit American Honey (Andrea Arnold, GB/US 2016)

American Honey is a fascinating coming-of-age film with a young lead actor, Sasha Lane, who Arnold picked off a beach and brought together with actor Shia LaBeouf. Like in Fish Tank, in which young unknown Katie Jarvis found herself opposite Michael Fassbender, the film is all about her awakening.

Cow
(2021) surprises perhaps as it is Arnold’s first documentary, although once again there is a female lead – albeit this time a dairy cow. Her name is Luma and we follow her everyday life at a dairy farm in England. We see her pressed between steel gates, led out to a rutting bull. We see her calf taken from its mother, de-horned, branded. The most shocking thing is the self-evident way all this happens: how Luma is pushed, pulled and yanked around.

still from Cow (Andrea Arnold, GB 2021)

still uit Cow (Andrea Arnold, GB 2021)

still from Cow (Andrea Arnold, GB 2021)

still uit Cow (Andrea Arnold, GB 2021)

Cow is above all an invitation to relate to the life of a run-of-the-mill dairy cow. Like Ramsay’s, Arnold’s filmic style doesn’t seek to give explanations, but to observe – and this is its greatest strength.

This article previously appeared in Filmjaarboek 2022-2023.

poster Britain's Brightest – De films van Andrea Arnold & Lynne Ramsay

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