This article is about three of the most innovative, bold and groundbreaking directors in the U.K.. As it happens, all of them are women.
Lynne Ramsay, Joanna Hogg and Andrea Arnold have collectively created a body of work that goes a long way toward keeping England and Scotland on the filmmaking map. Among their most notable works are WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, SOUVENIR and FISH TANK.
As individual talents, they all stand out. The fact that they are working during the same decade is almost startling. Whatever sex or gender they may be, there can be no doubt the world of film has already greatly benefited from their artistic output.
Lynne Ramsay was already known as award-winning short filmmaker when she debuted her feature RATCATCHER. It screened at Cannes in 1999 to heaps of critical praise.
RATCATCHER is no abstract, intellectual art film. It’s a hard-hitting story about a twelve-year-old kid named James growing up in the slums of Glasgow. His family’s apartment on the housing estate is falling apart. Rats from the local canal seem to be overrunning the place.
Through it all James somehow remains a normal kid. He finds joy and wonder even in such bleak surroundings. Not much happens but it’s terrific. Heartfelt but a long way from sentimental.
Ramsay’s follow-up was MORVERN CALLAR which was released in 2002. It stared Samantha Morton as a young woman who wakes up Christmas morning to find that her boyfriend has killed himself. The shock of the event and the questions it raises cause her to go on a somewhat disturbing trip to Spain. It’s slow and meditative and might stay with you long after you have watched it.
As strong as RATCATCHER and MORVERN CALLAR were, it was WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN which cemented Ramsey’s place as a distinct voice in film.
The film is based on the incredible novel of the same name by Lionel Shriver. It is one of my all-time favorite books which meant meant I was more than a little concerned that they were going to make a movie version of it.
I needn’t have worried. The film was good. As in, one of the very best films of the last decade good. It stared Tildon Swinton as a mother who has a very uneasy relationship with her son. A relationship which is analyzed and reconsidered repeatedly when the son becomes the attacker in a mass-shooting at his high school.
It is not an easy film. Like the book, it leaves you wondering how much Swinton is or isn’t responsible for her son’s horrific acts of violence. It leaves you seeing her as both villain and victim.
In 2017 Ramsay came back with the shamefully underappreciated YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. It concerns a very TAXI DRIVER-like plot about a disturbed man who is praised for doing noble, if violent, deeds.
Joaquin Phoenix played the lead. In my opinion, he should have received the critical praise for this performance rather than over-the-top version of the mentally ill he played in JOKER. In YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE Phoenix is painfully realistic and all the more terrifying because of it.
Joanna Hogg’s SOUVENIR was rated the Best Film of 2019 by Sight and Sound Magazine. It’s that good.
Hogg’s take on the relationship between a college-aged girl and a well-spoken and charming heroin addict somehow avoids cheap sentimentality or the feeling of a paint-by-numbers, rise and fall, junkie story. It feels very complex and nuanced.
This result was in no small part due to the performances of Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke and Tilda Swinton (mother of Honor). They seem to find just the right understated tone to keep the story from becoming overblown.
The entire film feels uncomfortably plausible, including the making of some very bad decisions by the main characters. It is Hogg’s best work, by far and worth seeking out if you have not seen it yet.
All of Hogg’s films seem to have something to offer. Even the ones that don’t quite work. EXHIBITION is about a middle-aged, artistic couple and the state of their relationship as they prepare to sell their house. ARCHIPELAGO is about a family vacation proceeding one of its members leaving for volunteer duty in Africa. While neither of these films is as powerful as SOUVENIR, they each display a unique and nuanced take on the world that is in very rare supply.
Andrea Arnold came to attention in 2006 with her film RED ROAD. The film was shot in just six weeks and concerns a female security officer who spots a man from her past on the security cameras. Its complex characters and unpredictable plot twists create a story far different from what it first seems.
Arnold followed this up with FISH TANK. It involves a fifteen-year old girl and her relationship with her mother’s new boyfriend. The main character, played by Katie Jarvis, feels completely real which makes some of the moments of the film very difficult to take. But it’s worth it.
I was actually surprised how much I liked Arnold’s 2011 retelling of Bronte’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The only reason I watched it at all was because I trusted the director. And she didn’t let me down.
Rather than a costume epic of people running around the picturesque moors yelling “Heathcliff! Heathcliff, ” Arnold made this tortured romance saga feel exceptionally modern and relevant. It’s in-your-face energetic and raw. Race and class versus basic human need and emotion. At it’s core, it’s the story of two people drawn into a situation which neither one of them can come out of unscathed. It’s painful, beautiful and brilliant.
Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY, made in 2016, won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes. Shia Labeouf’s efforts to promote the film also got it some additional attention. Yet, it remains largely unseen.
The film centers around a group of young people traveling the country and selling magazine subscriptions. The leader of the group is Labeouf. He is more pimp the legit businessman. Sasha Lane plays one of his girls and she’s terrific. It’s a film that, like most of Arnold’s work, is well worth the effort to find.
Lynne Ramsay, Joanna Hogg and Andrea Arnold are all still making films. Because of them we have something to look forward to. Because of them, the UK film scene is not dull as dishwater.
Although similar to one another in some ways, each if these directors brings a very individual sensibility to their projects. It would be very hard to confuse one of Hogg’s films for one of Arnold’s, for instance.
Their bodies of work also make a very compelling case about why it is so important to make sure that films are made by a diverse group of people that can bring their unique worldviews to the screen. It’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the only way to keep independent filmmaking fresh, relevant and interesting.