Broadly speaking, English cinema can be separated into two categories: upper class period pieces by Merchant-Ivory, et al. versus the working class kitchen sink drama and social realism. The face of the former is often the sumptuous literary adaptation, generally based on a classic novel, where emotions are repressed and the closest thing to erotic energy is Colin Firth in a wet Seinfeld-style puffy shirt. Meanwhile, working class films tend towards the fiercely contemporary, exploring the social problems of the present and observing the mini-cosmos of the council estate with a roughhewn visual style. What, then, could be the outcome of pairing a rising social realist director with one of the most beloved texts of the English canon? Nothing less than, perhaps, the most truthful English-language film adaptation of the novel produced so far.
Wuthering Heights is a novel that has been adapted countless times, usually with the reverence expected of a film based on a Great Book. Andrea Arnold’s most recent adaptation dispenses with Masterpiece Theatre-style politesse, and presents a merciless feminist, postcolonial reading. Though these sorts of readings are often accused of favoring identity politics over an ingenuous understanding of the text, Arnold’s perspective allows her to create a film that is not only a stunning work in its own right, but one that captures the violent, erotic soul of the novel in a way that safer films could not.
Arnold announces the originality of her vision from the beginning – in the first scene the viewer initially glimpses Heathcliff in shadow and out of focus. As a clearer view emerges, it becomes apparent that Heathcliff is played by a black actor, James Howson, the first non-white performer to portray the role on film. This casting decision is not only accurate (Heathcliff is described in the novel as a “gypsy” and “lascar” – a term that referred to South Asian sailors working on European ships), it also further intensifies Heathcliff’s alienation from the isolated inhabitants of Emily Brontë’s harsh northern England. As Howson stares dejectedly out the window and runs repeatedly into a wall at full speed, Arnold quickly drags the novel’s conception of love as a violent, destructive force to the fore.
Like most adaptations, this Wuthering Heights does away with the novel’s complicated frame, in which a traveller narrates his chance refuge at the estate, and the housekeeper Nelly relays the story of Cathy and Heathcliff to him. Instead, the film’s version of the story is told squarely from Heathcliff’s point of view. This is brilliantly communicated by Robbie Ryan’s cinematography, with jittery handheld camerawork mirroring Heathcliff’s sense of dislocation. The camera repeatedly slips in and out of Heathcliff’s literal point of view, allowing the viewer to both observe and experience the proceedings. This technique proves most effective in the moments when the camera-as-Heathcliff tenderly observes details of Cathy’s appearance – the hem of her skirt, a glimpse of neck peeking through her hair. In these moments, this otherwise rough, seething film achieves a stunning stillness, and acknowledges the warm affection underlying the riotous passion.
The screenplay by Arnold and Olivia Hetreed is sparse and effective – full of monosyllabic lines and sudden outburst of violent language, often peppered with expletives and racial slurs. Famous speeches, such as Cathy’s declaration, “I am Heathcliff!” are dropped. Just as the storytelling frame is dispensed with in favor of Heathcliff’s visual experience, the novel’s emphasis on words is replaced with the film’s rich visuals and soundscapes. The most essential information about these characters and their stories is not in their dialogue, but in their clothing, soiled or pristine, and their richly detailed environs. The film envelops the viewer in its close-ups of plants, insects, and the human face, wide shots of small bodies in grey, rain-drenched moors, and the atmospheric soundtrack, which captures and amplifies everything from the howl of wind and rain to the scuttling of bugs.
Nearly every aspect of Arnold’s film seems diametrically opposed to the expectations of a classic literary adaptation. From the inarticulate, almost mute characters to the mud-drenched aesthetics, every cinematic choice seems to be a purposeful rebellion against the tradition of the pristine period piece. However, Arnold’s unusual approach does not betray Brontë’s text; rather, it strips away the obfuscating period piece trappings to reveal the novel’s brutal core. By boldly employing social realist techniques, Arnold manages to not only capture the spirit of the novel, but to reveal its continuing resonance for the modern world.
Wuthering Heights is out now on DVD from Oscilloscope Laboratories.