Andrea Arnold blends gritty and magical realism in her Kent-set Competition title starring Barry Keoghan


Source: Atsushi Nishijima/Cornerstone


Dir/scr: Andrea Arnold. UK/France. 2024. 119mins

The spirit of Charles Dickens’ sprawling coming-of-age epic Great Expectations shadows Andrea Arnold’s return to feature-length drama. Set in Gravesend on the Thames estuary south-east of London, where Dickens’ novel opens, Bird spreads its wings slowly, but ends up soaring away from its dingy broken-Britain locations in a moving flight of hope and empowerment.

Arnold weaves a subtle mix between gritty realism and the magical kind.

Rolling up several of the themes that have caught Arnold’s attention over the years, including the animalistic turn of her previous feature, the 2021 documentary Cow, Bird feels like a return that is also a step forward, and should resonate with audiences perhaps even more strongly than American Honey (2016). Mubi will release in the UK/Ireland, having secured rights ahead of the film’s premiere in Cannes Competition.

Bursting with music, pulsing with dance and movement, Bird sets out its stall from the start with a high-energy e-scooter dash through the streets of Gravesend set to Dublin band Fontaines D.C.’s yelled new-punk anthem ’Too Real’, whose chorus “Is it too real for ya?” becomes a resonant leitmotif. Twelve-year-old Bailey (played by first-timer Nykiya Adams) lives in a graffiti-covered apartment in what seems to be a semi-legal squat with her older brother Hunter (Jason Edward Buda) and dad Bug (Barry Koeghan) – an Irishman living in Kent with no discernible job and a distracted approach to fathering. Keoghan plays Bug as a chancer that lives for the day. He’s a great dad if you catch him when he’s in a good mood but, being not much more than a kid himself, he has no idea how to handle a difficult pre-adolescent.

Bailey has learned to look after herself, retreating into a private world as closed off as the curtain-tent she has made over her bed. She shoots short videos on her phone – of seagulls hovering overhead, horses and people she meets, like the mysterious Bird (Passages star Franz Rogowski), a drifter who appears after she wakes up in a meadow along the edge of the M2 motorway.

Arnold’s 2009 feature Fish Tank was also about the journey of a lost young woman from a broken home on the edge of London who finds some solace in the scrappy nature on the edge of town. In Bird, the animal world seeps into every crevice of a film that eventually does something entirely audacious and unexpected with the theme – one that asks a lot of the viewer, but amply repays our indulgence.

Bug is covered in animal tattoos, from the dragonfly on his back to the scorpion that crawls up his neck. He has just purchased a Colorado River toad that is going to make him rich; he plans to sell the slime it excretes when threatened, a highly-prized hallucinogen (‘dad rock’ by bands like Coldplay seems to threaten the toad and cause it to exude, the closest Bird comes to a running joke). A butterfly alights on Bailey’s hand, a crow begins to follow her when Hunter sends her on a quest to get a message to his 14-year-old pregnant girlfriend, who her parents have locked away. 

This is not the only fairy-tale element that cuts through the film’s dirty realist setting and handheld camera style like the strange gale that sometimes almost blows Bailey off her feet (which it seems that only she can feel). Bailey’s two half-sisters and mother Peyton (Top Boy’s Jasmine Jobson) live with an ogre, the abusive Skate (James Nelson-Joyce). Transformations are everywhere – not the least of them in Bailey’s own body, as she wakes up to discover her period has started - but Arnold weaves a subtle mix between gritty realism and the magical kind.

Production companies: House Productions, Ad Vitam

International sales: Cornerstone Films

Producers: Tessa Ross, Juliette Howell, Lee Groombridge

Cinematography: Robbie Ryan

Production design: Maxine Carlier

Editing: Joe Bini

Cast: Barry Keoghan, Franz Rogowski, Nykiya Adams, Jason Edward Buda, Jasmine Jobson, James Nelson-Joyce