Andrea Arnold’s new adaptation of “Wuthering Heights” is the Anti-Masterpiece Theater take on Emily Brontë’s novel and, as such, far more faithful to its source than any number of genteel, romantic Merchant-Ivory style versions might be.
Arnold’s first two movies, “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” (Cannes Jury Prize-winners both), were notable examples of British neo-miserablism. Cast significantly with non-actors, her “Wuthering Heights” extends that aesthetic to mid-19th Century Yorkshire and then some. The weather is as thick as the accents; the landscapes are raw and the mode ultra verité. It’s a brutish Hobbesian world illuminated by unexpected moments of mysterious communion. Father Earnshaw (Paul Hinton) brings the foundling Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) home to live with his motherless children in a dirt-floor hovel on a windswept moor; little Heathcliff and his adoptive sister Cathy (Shannon Beer) run through the fields and wrestle passionately in the mud.
Brontë describes her Heathcliff as resembling a “dark-skinned gypsy.” That he is here played both as a child and an adult, by actors of African descent, infuses this tale of mad incestuous love (hate) with a measure of racial allegory — particularly as the child Heathcliff is repeatedly abused, beaten, and treated as a slave by his adoptive brother Hindley (Lee Shaw). When he is flogged, however, Cathy is there to lick his wounds.
Assuming that her audience is familiar with Brontë’s novel, or at least with the 1939 Samuel Goldwyn production starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon, Arnold basically treats the book as a score on which she can riff. The complicated narrative devices are gone, along with the supernatural elements and the novel’s entire second half. The emphasis is on the strangeness of the story, the poverty of the family, and the irrational nature of the characters’ passions. The material is directed with a strategy and, for its first hour at least, when Heathcliff and Cathy are still children, Arnold’s movie is conceptually quite brilliant — a total statement in its rough and tumble visuals. The thematic match-cuts, blurry abstractions, and nature inserts verge at times on the Brakhagian, even if the filmmaker’s model is more likely Terrence Malick.
Things are somewhat normalized when, signaled by a burst of white light, some years pass, and the runaway Heathcliff returns as a gentleman (James Howson). Cathy, who has married the rich, milquetoast neighbor Edgar Linton (James Northcote), has been similarly transformed into a lady (Kaya Scodelario). A sense of semi-civilization and conventional story-telling settles over the proceedings which, elliptical no longer, are, at this point, far closer to Goldwyn movie than Brontë novel. Arnold keeps some gas in the tank for a full-throttle closer, but it’s an unavoidable observation that her “Wuthering Heights,” no less than Brontë’s, is a work that falls off drastically in its second act.
Still, the characters are prone to an unlikely but programmatic lack of propriety, and Arnold is able to maintain the novel’s essential violence and cruelty. A great admirer of “Wuthering Heights,” Camille Paglia described it as “a catalog of chthonian horrors,” while characterizing the ill-fated lovers, Catherine and Heathcliff, as “self-maiming priests of a pagan cult of unmaternal stormy nature.” The French surrealists admired “Wuthering Heights” for its unflinching evocation of l’amour fou, along with a cruelty that reminded them of the “divine” Marquis de Sade. This too is a movie with a bite.
Read ARTINFO’s interview with “Wuthering Heights” director Andrea Arnold here.
Photo: Courtesy Oscilloscope Pictures © 2012