“Nowadays you can just grab a DSLR or even your iPhone and make imagery. It’s a question of getting your eye to a camera. That’s where you learn about composition, by shooting the world around you. It doesn’t have to be lit in any special way; there’s always natural light. If you can create an interest in the everyday world around you, then you’re probably going in the right direction.”
– Robbie Ryan, bafta.org
Red Road (2006)
Director Andrea Arnold
Like many cinematographers, Irish-born Robbie Ryan started out in short films (indeed, he continues to shoot shorts alongside features to this day). One of these in particular sticks out: Wasp, the Oscar-winning 2003 film he shot for the young Andrea Arnold. It was to begin the collaboration for which Ryan remains justly celebrated, a succession of three features that rank among the most distinctive British films of recent years. Red Road, the first of these, is a surveillance thriller in the vein of Rear Window (1954) or The Conversation (1974) set on a Glasgow housing estate, where a CCTV operator keeps watch over the tower blocks’ comings and goings.
Fish Tank (2009)
Director Andrea Arnold
Arnold and Ryan’s second feature collaboration immediately sets itself apart from the social-realist pack with its rare-these-days 4:3 screen ratio, not to mention the rhapsodic imagery with which Ryan punctuates the narrative. Ostensibly a slice of Essex estuary vérité about the effect her mother’s charismatic new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) has on an unruly 15-year-old (Katie Jarvis), Fish Tank fizzes with a human vitality so often missing from kitchen sink dramas. Ryan’s camerawork is fundamental to the film’s achievement: invigorating and energetic in the steadicam sequences, then sensuously physical in the closeness of its hand-held shots.
Wuthering Heights (2011)
Director Andrea Arnold
This may be Ryan’s masterpiece to date, a British film so elemental in its brute evocation of the wildness of the Yorkshire moors in the 19th century that it bears comparison with films by Belá Tarr. Arnold’s unconventional adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel blows away the cobwebs of the period movie, leaving only the ferocious extremes of the emotion between Cathy and Heathcliff and the wind-blown desolation of the setting. On horseback together, a young Heathcliff clings to Cathy – and the proximity of Ryan’s camera ensures we can almost smell her hair and sense the erotic charge of Heathcliff’s closeness. Later, when the pair are reunited – as the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin wrote – “the sheer particle-bending power of their bond seems to refract the light”.
The Angels’ Share (2012)
Director Ken Loach
Ken Loach puts great store in his relationships with cinematographers such as Chris Menges and Barry Ackroyd, adding Ryan into his inner circle of close collaborators with this charming social-realist comedy from 2012. With echoes of Ealing classics, it’s a heist movie with a difference in which a motley crew – thrown together by community service – hatch a plan to siphon off whisky from a priceless keg. Ryan’s work here is much less impressionistic than his collaborations with Andrea Arnold; he told BAFTA that filming for Loach is about “witnessing life without being intrusive, the camera is not there, really”. The pair re-teamed for Jimmy’s Hall in 2014.
Ginger & Rosa (2012)
Director Sally Potter
The quintessential Ryan effect may be figures set against the misty whiteness of fog or some uncertain light. Look up to our stills from Wuthering Heights, or down to our still from Catch Me Daddy – the effect is there. It’s there, to an extent, in that shot of the whisky tasting room in The Angels’ Share. And in this scene in a café from Sally Potter’s 60s-set coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa, who knows what earthly mist is flooding the background as the teenage Ginger (Elle Fanning) chats with her lecturer father (Alessandro Nivola). As with Ryan’s work with Andrea Arnold, Ginger & Rosa makes beautiful use of subjective camera to dramatise its young protagonist’s emotional turmoil.
Director Stephen Frears
Ryan returned to shoot in his native Ireland for this true story about the elderly Philomena Lee’s (Judi Dench) efforts to track down the son she was forced to give up for adoption while a teenager in an Irish convent. With assistance from journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), her quest takes the pair to the States before returning to the convent for a wrenchingly powerful showdown. Several reviewers singled out Ryan’s work in this snowy finale; the becalmed feeling of still winter air is palpable in his images. For Little White Lies, David Jenkins noted: “The superb final shot (props to ace DoP Robbie Ryan) sees the pair driving off into a gorgeous snow-dappled vista, a landscape which itself looks like it might have been touched by the hand of God.”
Catch Me Daddy (2014)
Director Daniel Wolfe
Catch Me Daddy, backed by the BFI Film Fund, is in cinemas from 27 February.
The latest film to make use of Ryan’s extraordinary eye both for wild landscape and realist grit is this Yorkshire-set thriller, the debut film by brothers Daniel and Matthew Wolfe. It’s the story of a British-Pakistani girl (newcomer Sameena Jabeen Ahmed) who runs away to the moors to be with her white boyfriend, only for her zealously religious family to hire a gang to fetch her back. Catch Me Daddy is a savage, pessimistic film, but one in which Ryan’s poetic compositions provide often sublimely beautiful counterpoint to the dark subject matter. Ryan told the Guardian: “The human interaction with nature is a phenomenal thing … How we abuse it, and rip it apart. And sometimes the mess – the leftovers of human inhabitation and decay – looks beautiful because nature grabs it and does something with it. I’m a big believer that there’s beauty in everything we look at.”