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Robbie Ryan Shoots Two Contenders

Nykiya Adams in Andrea Arnold’s Bird (2024)

Growing up in Dublin, Robbie Ryan was fourteen when he decided to become a cinematographer. After graduating from what the Irish Times’s Una Mullally calls “that great incubator of creative people with an edge in Dún Laoghaire now known as IADT,” Ryan shot ads and music videos and eventually found himself working on features directed by Noah Baumbach, Stephen Frears, Sally Potter, and Mike Mills. He’s worked with Ken Loach on five films, including I, Daniel Blake, which won the Palme d’Or in 2016.

Most recently, Ryan has shot two contenders for the top prize in Cannes this year, Andrea Arnold’s Bird and Yorgos Lanthimos’s Kinds of Kindness. Before he scored Oscar nominations for his work on Lanthimos’s The Favourite (2018) and Poor Things (2023), Ryan was probably best known for his collaboration with Arnold, which began with Wasp (2003), the winner of the Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film in 2005.

“Andrea Arnold was one of the first times where I thought, ‘Wow, she does it differently,’” Ryan told Mullally in 2019. “It felt so simple and free. And that’s how the films really translate as well, really honest. I think honesty is a big part of what I do.” Lanthimos, he said, is “a totally visual director. He’s a cinematographer, really. So you just follow along on his coattails and see what he comes up with next, try and get the vision of what he has done, visually and technically, because that’s how you help.” Mullally got Ryan to admit that he’s “pretty self-deprecating. I don’t try and blow my own trumpet.”

Bird

Accepting this year’s Carrosse d’Or, a “tribute to a filmmaker who has left their mark on the history of cinema,” from the Society of French Directors when the Directors’ Fortnight opened on Wednesday, Arnold freely admitted that Bird was a tough project. “It was the hardest film I ever made,” she said. “Lots of things I’ve put on the page and cared about got lost, so the edit was really hard. It was proving really hard to carve from the rushes something of the film I had intended. I was grieving the losses and I felt pretty vulnerable.”

For an idea of just how odd a fit Bird is into Arnold’s filmography, listen to Jessica Kiang, a longtime admirer of Arnold’s work, tear into it on the Film Comment Podcast, while host Devika Girish, who says she’s never really been won over by Arnold’s films before, defends it. Arnold has returned to the southeastern English county of Kent, where she grew up and where she and Ryan shot Wasp and Fish Tank (2009).

And it’s “out of the milieu’s marshy semi-urban landscape of empty beer cans, cigarette butts, domestic abuse and despair” that Bird “takes magical-realist flight and transforms into something unlike anything Arnold’s done before,” writes Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter. “Thanks to the director’s magisterial knack with actors (especially non-professionals such as terrific adolescent discovery Nykiya Adams, who, as the protagonist, is in nearly every frame of the film), the result is quite entrancing.”

Adams plays twelve-year-old Bailey, who lives with Hunter (Jason Buda), her thuggish half-brother, and Bug (Barry Keoghan), her tattooed, drug-dealing father. Bug aims to marry a woman he met three months ago, Kailey (Frankie Box), and to pay for the wedding, he plans to sell the hallucinogenic slime gleamed off a toad. Bailey occasionally drops in on her mother (Jasmine Jobson), who’s dealing with three young children and a new and terrifyingly abusive boyfriend (James Nelson-Joyce). “In Robbie Ryan’s tactile cinematography,” writes Ela Bittencourt for Sight and Sound, “the camera stays glued to bodies, with partially obstructed frames, so that viewers are plunged into uncertainty and disorientation along with the characters.”

To reorient herself, Bailey wanders the fields, shooting photos and videos of butterflies and other natural wonders. It’s out here that she meets a new friend, Bird (Frank Rogowski), a skirt-wearing oddity who tells her he was born around here and he’s looking to reunite with his parents. “Bird is consoling and creepy at once, a natural mode for an actor as slippery and alluring as Rogowski,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson.

“Everything Arnold always does well is palpable,” writes the Telegraph’s Tim Robey in his review of Bird, adding that “her trusty photographer Robbie Ryan doesn’t miss; Adams is excellent; the sense of place is as pungent as ever. If you want Keoghan serving karaoke and shirtless dancing again after Saltburn, you won’t be disappointed, though it couldn’t be called the freshest use of him. Personally, I couldn’t follow Arnold over the dotted line into violent magical realism, however situated it might be in a young girl’s sense of fantasy. It’s a miscalculation, like playing your weakest suit mistaking it for a trump.”

Kinds of Kindness

When Mullally spoke with Ryan, The Favourite had just been nominated for ten Oscars (in the end, it won just one, for Olivia Colman), and the frenzy of awards season was peaking. “I think it’s thrown [Lanthimos] a bit that it’s being received so well, because he’s used to being a bit of an outsider in the filmmaking world,” said Ryan. “So that kind of intense amount of exposure is something that’s unnerving in its own sense.”

For Kinds of Kindness, Lanthimos has reunited with screenwriting partner Efthymis Filippou (Dogtooth, The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and delivered what Rolling Stone’s David Fear calls “unfiltered, uncut, old-school Yorgos . . . Designed as a triptych and running close to three hours, this cinematic novella collection feels exactly like something Lanthimos would have made in his pre-‘Hollywood’s resident Euro-eccentric’ era.”

Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Mamoudou Athie, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, and Joe Alwyn each take on roles in the three stories. A submissive employee allows every detail of his life to be determined by a dominating boss. A missing wife returns, and her husband demands she proves she’s who she says she is—and that she still loves him. Members of a sex cult are instructed to find a spiritual leader with supernatural powers.

For the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “part of the film’s eerie joke effect, the effect of seeing the universe mysteriously doing the same awful things over and over, is in witnessing the same actors repeatedly showing up.” The Telegraph’s Robbie Collin notes that “an angular piano-driven score by Poor Things’ composer Jerkin Fendrix echoes their torment in nervy plonks and plinks, as cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s stylish ultra-wide framing keeps their plights at a dry, arch remove.”

This is “a work of audacious originality, vicious humor, and balls to the wall strangeness, giving the impression there are few places the director won’t go,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “That includes places of darkness, perversity, and mutilation not for the squeamish, but there’s a counterbalancing lightness to Kinds of Kindness that serves the material well.”

But Time’s Stephanie Zacharek finds the film to be “stiff, plodding, and soporific, even as it seeks to wow us with its deadpan shockeroos.” Lanthimos “has never made a movie this gratuitously brutal,” writes the Los Angeles Times’s Joshua Rothkopf. “It’s more a collection of memes than a sustained piece of thinking.”

Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri finds it “truly bizarre and wonderful that this Greek provocateur who makes aggressively alienating movies keeps going from major gala to major gala, accruing Oscars and hot movie star collaborators along the way. His pictures are being released by a Disney subsidiary, for crying out loud. The only other figure I can compare him to from the past is Luis Buñuel, who made surrealist movies about crazy priests and sliced eyeballs and torture fetishes and people eating shit only to wind up a part of the international jet-set, getting drinks named after him in chichi hotel bars.”

Stone and Plemons have already signed on to Lanthimos’s next project, Bugonia. According to the Hollywood Reporter’s Mia Galuppo, Will Tracy’s screenplay “follows two conspiracy-obsessed men who kidnap the high-powered CEO of a major company, convinced that she is an alien intent on destroying planet Earth.”

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