London Film Festival 2011 #2: Wuthering Heights (UK 2011)

James Howson as Heathcliff

It’s difficult to know where to begin in relation to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; except to say that within minutes I knew whatever else was missing, this version would not leave out the hanging of Isabella’s spaniel. In playing the race card, by casting a two black actors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James Howson) Heathcliff, Arnold has not subsequently backed away from making him and Cathy the elemental creatures of cruelty and obsession that underpins the brutality of Emily Brontë’s imagining. And it is all the richer for that act of faith in realising all the parts that make them compelling protagonists.

From the start, the elements play a vital role visually. Whilst previous British versions have to a greater or lesser extent ‘prettied’ their subjects, this film is distinguished by the real, visceral realisation of how these two characters inhabit the outside better than they do the inside – the sparse moorland scrub is their wordless playground and these are children who grew up in all weathers, knowing the mud, the rain, the gorse and often wearing it on themselves as a second skin. Cathy’s wasting away inside Thrushcross Grange is entirely logical.

If you are able to see the film you won’t need, so I won’t waste time, on lengthy descriptions of its cinematography (focussed on setting you into the middle of the action) and the powerful editing. Those of us who are lucky to live near the Brontës’ Haworth home – and get to walk on those moors – can recognise the bleakness that Arnold and Robbie Ryan (her long time collaborator) have realised in the best kind of visceral filmmaking. The wordlessness is important – in this stripped down imagining (it’s pulling away from the word adaptation) – the kind of characters Arnold has conceived of here would not be given to nineteenth century verbosity and witticism. The supporting players are convincing – Hindley is especially important since the narrative restructuring places more emphasis on the surrogate Cain and Abel rivalry and bitter hatred. (An honourable mention for Nichola Burley who did much with the usually insipid Isabella). The filmic language consistently places you in the perspective of the main character – because this is Heathcliff’s story told from the perspective of the outsider who enters a world and tries to determine to make it his own. All the performances are strong, I think, notably the non-actors/new actors in the two Heathcliffs and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). The moment where Heathcliff (Howson) beats his head against the tree in anguish – a usually uncomfortably theatrical and unconvincing moment certainly in some of the previous British adaptations –is, well, exactly how this man might express his emotions.

A love story, a revenge drama, a story of a rise to power? It encompasses all of these. I loved the stillness that was at the heart of the film – there is no non-diegetic music used during the narrative – a stillness that reminded me of Red Road and how Jackie’s (Kate Dickie) world was silent, alone and contained until Clyde (Tony Curran) introduced noise and chaos. As in that film, and in Fish Tank (which by comparison was a much ‘noisier’ story generally) there is great sophistication in moving sympathy and/or comprehension between the different protagonists – particularly those characters who do not fit typical moulds of heroism or sympathy or (like Clyde, like Heathcliff) act in a way that should deny it. One of the great pleasures of the original novel is how your sympathies shift as you re-read – particularly on getting older – so Arnold’s text promises the richness of rediscovery. It also has an aesthetic I felt was familiar from Andrew Kötting’s work, especially This Filthy Earth – which reminds me of the relevance of the more European novelistic tradition such as found in the novels of Zola. However, Brontë’s original protagonists are figures out of time and society, and her novel comments on the individual and the psychological – not on class or social systems. Andrea Arnold’s interpretation, though, appears to examine those constructions of power and how they dominate even within small societies. Just as Heathcliff enters the torpid village, steeped in adherence to old ways of religion and ownership, so the wider world seeps into this gothic and elemental classic tale through her bold construction of a real outsider.

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One comment

  1. keith1942

    I have just seen this film at the Leeds International Film Festival and I am very impressed. Despite leaving out parts of the original novel, this would seem to be the definitive film version. It matches in mood and atmosphere the most passionate and one of the most violent of English novels.
    The cinematography and the sound design are both impressive. And a substantial part of the cast are essentially non-professionals.
    This is possibly Andrea Arnold’s most accomplished film, which is saying a lot.

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