“Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy come home,” Andrea Arnold drops the high drama of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in return for an opulence of visual treats.
The Wiley, Windy Moors by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
It’s not unusual for film adaptations of Emily Brontë’s novel, and God knows there have been enough, to suffer sudden amnesia when it gets to the more sedentary second volume of adulthood, lacking the all-consuming passion of the first, somehow unable within the scope of cinematic storyville to survive the death of Cathy. And while William Wyler, Luis Buñuel and Peter Kosminsky may each have had their own narrative purpose, with previous versions starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon or Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche, it’s fair to say that performance and passion on the moors has been well and truly covered. So it’s an intriguing path Andrea Arnold wends with her Wuthering Heights, her oh-so-young leads, a black Heathcliff and her feast of textural, sensual delights. It’s beautiful, if harrowing at times, to watch, but with a very thrifty dialogue and understated drama, could this be the first Wuthering Heights not to wuther the love storm?
Kate Bush’s hit debut single is almost synonymous with what we think of Wuthering Heights now – the overblown romantic notions of another time. So it’s both shocking and bizarrely appropriate that the director of Fish Tank and Red Road revisits the 19th century novel and its bone-chilling, wind-ravaged reality of life on the misty moors. After all, all her previous films have been cut from the same threads of loneliness, revenge and new beginnings. Only Wuthering Heights lacks the moral frissons of her previous films, replaced here instead with sudden bouts of violence and a retro-fitted racial tension. Heathcliff’s dark skin heritage may previously have been disavowed in favour of white actors, Andrea Arnold puts it centre-stage, with great performances from both James Howson and Solomon Glave, couching Heathcliff’s story in terms of slavery and 18th century racism. But there’s little in the way of racial politics in her Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff’s fate isn’t based on colour but status. He’s an outsider and observer from the first, an awkward half-brother during Mr Earnshaw’s life and a humiliated servant after his death, and despite his upward mobility he remains embittered and isolated atop his windswept domain.
Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is a fantastically sensual evocation of the sights and smells of the Yorkshire moors, from the woollen rug and wet dog to the whispering dust and scratched graffiti. And his handheld camera is a welcome modern inclusion to the staid theatrics of period drama, with Heathcliff’s point-of-view achieving narrative status as he watches Cathy’s hair drifting towards him on horseback. His position as an observer is a great excuse for pretty cinematography too, with endless sublime shots of lens-flared grasses, moribund moths and lapwing’s feathers. Perhaps it’s the aesthetic licence of the adaptation, all the heady pleasures of imagery and texture but none of the heavy responsibilities of storytelling, all left up to the audience’s cultural consciousness. For how else can we piece together the fragments to understand the significance of Heathcliff’s relentless headbutting, the childhood graffiti or the hawthorn scratching at the window with no knowledge of their originals or of Cathy’s ghostly visitation.
And while the younger actors may not have a great deal to do to tell Cathy and Heathcliff’s story, still they do it well. Their youth is more fitting to Wuthering Heights‘ amour fou, running and rolling around in ditches, poised on hilltops or licking each other’s wounds before they’re inevitably stifled in the corsets and elegant fineries of adulthood. And while it’s impossible to fully extract them from the 21st century, there’s a suppressed energy to their modernly sullen love. And a narrative awkwardness too though around Cathy’s choices for marriage, Andrea Arnold dispelling the husband status dilemma with an unexplained acceptance of the first hand that offers itself that seems more like fickle flattery and money grubbing. It’s less a film about the wilds of passion than one of upward mobility, following the lovers’ rags-to-riches trajectories, and ultimately losing itself in the vengeful and bitter twists that mark Heathcliff’s return to the moors.
It’s strange, with its favouring of surfaces over story, that Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights stands so alone from its literary neighbour. It doesn’t have the social climate or the passion of the original, and yet there are so many underplayed remnants of Emily Brontë’s story that it almost encourages comparisons more than any other adaptation. Its portrait of violence is visceral and striking, lambs slaughtered and dogs strung up by their necks with a matter-of-factness worthy of Hardy – the brutality of life on the moors only undone by the awkward incongruousness of Mumford & Sons‘ closing song. And while there’s a great deal to marvel at in Andrea Arnold’s film, Wuthering Heights is a cold and blustery place, its heart-warming, gossamer-light images finally weighed down by a rough-hewn script that just won’t let them take flight.
Wuthering Heights is released in the UK on 11th November 2011