Wuthering Heights (2011), Andrea Arnold’s re-telling of Emily Brontë’s classic, is clever and full of passion and intensity; very little of which, unfortunately, is communicated to the viewer. Filmed in a social realist style, the film’s handheld aesthetic blends with close up footage of British flora and fauna as Arnold presents the doomed love between literary icons Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff.
Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), an orphaned child brought to the remote moorland farmhouse of ‘Wuthering Heights’, is re-imagined as a black youth, a runaway slave perhaps. Here he meets with hostility and brutality, especially when the father of the family and his founder passes away.
Only the young and lively Cathy (Shannon Beer) treats him with some tenderness. She’s certainly feisty and you can see why the two might take a shine to each other. They will grow to love each other, though that love – through its denial and repression – will have violent and destructive consequences.
On paper, this all looks good. It’s refreshing to get away from the RADA-dominated enunciation of the BBC Jane Austen (and now Elisabeth Gaskill) adaptations, as well as their polished but conservative historical recreations. Arnold’s postcolonial reading is valid, though it might not seem that daring to readers of Jean Rhys’ The Wide Sargossa Sea, which rethought Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre from a postcolonial perspective in 1966.
However, Arnold’s decision to use non-professional actors to play the younger and older Heathcliff (Glave and James Howson respectively) doesn’t work out so well. Both versions of Heathcliff convey none of the charisma and passion that they ought to if we are to care what happens to this antihero and the woman who loves him. Inarticulate – fine, but wooden and lumbering – no. He sulks when he should glower. It also beggars belief that he should become affluent, as there is no evidence of spark, drive or will.
Wuthering Heights’ most successful aspect is the eponymous place itself. Whereas previous versions could easily have been re-titled ‘Cathy and Heathcliff’, Arnold’s new version is very much about Wuthering Heights itself, rather than simply being set there. Winds blow, rains lash down and the nights are as black as the inside of a buried corpse. The film isn’t just earthy – it is muddy and soiled. Arnold is fantastic at conveying a tactile world of rough edges – wood grain, bracken and rock – a gritty world inhabited by moths, beetles and watched over by hovering birds of prey.
Despite Brontë’s passionate original text, the film itself almost refuses to present passion. There are no startling scenes which will really move you, and Arnold has perhaps consciously downplayed the text’s melodrama. If this was her aim, then she has succeeded. Her Wuthering Heights is a film which will certainly beguile and interest, and demands at least one revisit – given the magnitude of any adaptation’s task, perhaps that is enough.
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