Review: WUTHERING HEIGHTS is an Unusual and Haunting Interpretation

Many great classic novels have been adapted to film several times over. Books such as Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, and Great Expectations have all had, and continue to have, their adaptations. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's classic gothic tale of unrequited love on the wild Yorkshire moor, has been adapted for either cinema or television no fewer than fifteen times. It's no wonder; given the setting, the passion and the romance, the iconic main characters of Heathcliff and Catherine are coveted by actors. But with so many adaptations, it stands to reason that a more traditional one is not necessary. I'm guessing this was Andrea Arnold's reasoning behind her crack at the book.

Instead of an adaptation Arnold's take on Wuthering Heights is more of an an interpretation, one that strips the story to its bare bones and reveals the blood, sweat and dirt that lie at the core of an angry heart left unfulfilled. This version of Wuthering Heights is likely going to anger a lot of people. Which is sad, because it is brilliant. Arnold is taking a different route, exploring certain themes and characters within the text from a different perspective. Arnold is most well known for her gritty contemporary social realist dramas Red Road and Fish Tank. Contrary to expectation, the sensibility she brought to those films works very well with a mid-18th century gothic novel.

For those few who didn't have the book on their required reading list in high school, it tells the story of a gypsy boy, Heathcliff, who is brought to a Yorkshire farm by the kind Mr. Earnshaw. The only member of the family who welcomes him, though, is young Catherine. She and Heathcliff spend much of their childhood running wild on the moors and finding soul mates in each other. But after Earnshaw's death, Catherine's brother makes life miserable for Heathcliff, and Catherine takes a shine to the neighbouring family's more refined son. Heathcliff leaves to seek his fortune, only to return years later to win back the heart of Catherine and take revenge on her brother.

And what a perspective Arnold give us. This is raw, gritty, melancholy and visceral in its visualization of the landscape and the various creatures that inhabit it. The Yorkshire moors can seem a wild, desolate, terrible place, but Catherine and Heathcliff (though he is not native to it) are like that earth itself. Arnold dispenses with constant shots of the whole landscape, and instead focuses on the bodies within the landscape and of it. Arnold does not try to falsify the land with fancy effects or swooping, meaningless camera movements. Using handheld cameras, she frequently follows directly behind her characters, not necessarily to copy their perspective, but to make the spectator feel as though they are spying. She creates a palpable difference between the hardened, rough Earnshaw home and the more pleasant and manorly sterility of the Linton estate. It is much about class struggle being waged on top of this landscape which would seem to accept neither group, and Catherine and Heathcliff are caught in the middle. The moors mean freedom, at least for Cathy and Heathcliff, and they are dragged away from them by the confines of their societal statuses. During the second half, when we meet the adult Heathcliff and Catherine, they seem ill-at-ease in their new finery, lost unless they are together among the rocks and winds.

Perhaps the boldest move on Arnold's part is casting black actors in the role of Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson as the younger and older, respectively.) This is really not a stretch, as in the novel Heathcliff is frequently referred to as dark and low, common insulting slang for black people in England at that time. Arnold's Heathcliff is a lost, insular boy, finding strength only in speaking his mind and the presence of Cathy. Both he and Catherine are natural ruffians, belonging to the land, as oppose to any social/political class. And this is where the conflict lies. Catherine must embrace some semblance of the social order, whereas that order rejects Heathcliff. All of the performances in the film are excellent, and as befits Arnold's previous films, they are natural and the dialogue has an almost improvised feel (though they keep within the confines of dialogue of that time and the book.) In fact, a colleague of mine who was disappointed with the film claimed that impression on the lack of melodrama, which he felt was intrinsic to the book. I went back to the source, and I have to disagree with him. Certainly, it is gothic, but gothic doesn't mean melodramatic, and in fact, Arnold is right to keep the performances naturalistic. The dialogue has been interpreted as melodramatic over the years, but upon reading, it it much more earthy, much more attuned with Northern English cadence and colloquialisms, eschewing melodrama for something far more raw and and at times animalistic. At the beginning of the film, when Heathcliff repeatedly throws himself against the wall in mourning, it is not over dramatic, it is almost expected, and full of the darkest pain.
 
As Arnold proves, a classic such as this, which has been adapted to death, is ripe for interpretation by a new generation who perhaps can find what was lost in an era of BBC-lavish-'proper' dramas. She brings her incredible eye for the beauty of the lonely and the plight of the outcast to this interpretation, and it should be praised.
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