For her third feature film, Andrea Arnold courageously takes on an adaptation of Emily Brontes classic gothic masterpiece. Together with co-writer Olivia Hetreed she has crafted a version of the story told from the point of view of Brontes anti-hero Heathcliff in which race, class and brutality are brought to the fore.
Heathcliff is an orphan boy picked up in Liverpool by the charitable, yet strict, Mr Earnshaw. He is taken to Wuthering Heights, the family house standing in lonely isolation on the Yorkshire moors. There he strikes up an intense friendship with Earnshaws daughter, Catherine. Despite the threat of constant beatings and ill treatment at the hands of her brother Hindley and the servant Joseph, the two run wild over the moors, lost in a world of their own creation. All seems well between the two until Catherine is invited into the more civilized world of their neighbours, the Lintons. When the Linton son proposes, Catherine is forced to choose between the civility of life with the Lintons and her feral friend. Heathcliff’s sense of rejection is so keen that he disappears in the night only to return three years later determined to win Catherine back or exact revenge upon those who have wronged him.
This is not a film for the faint hearted. Through Arnolds original framing device, it becomes a story about two people destroying each other. Much more so than in the book. She has done two things I admire her for. Firstly, breaking with tradition, she has cast two black actors as Heathcliff. In the book he is described as ‘a dark skinned gypsy in aspect’ and there have been many debates about his ethnicity over the years. Secondly, she has refused to subscribe to the common interpretation of Wuthering Heights as a great romantic story. Catherine and Heathcliff have been mythologized as a pair of tortured lovers. They may have loved each other intensely, but it wasn’t a healthy kind of love. Emily Bronte wrote a story about human cruelty, repression, jealousy and control.
Arnold has said that she is interested in why people turn out the way they do and presumably that’s why she’s chosen to concentrate on Heathcliff in this way. All he experiences in his early life is cruelty, racism, bigotry and jealousy. By casting black actors to play him, this becomes more acutely understandable for a modern audience. Perhaps more so than if she had cast him as Romany. Our understanding of Black history is far more accurate (although we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go on that front). The slave trade had only been completely abolished 14 years before Wuthering Heights was published. Endemic racism plagued Britain at a time when former slave owners were being compensated by the government for the loss of their workforce. Heathcliffs origins are never fully explored in the book, but if he’d been subjected to the kind of treatment most black citizens had at that time, it’s entirely understandable that he would have grown up to be suspicious and self preserving. Catherine too has suffered as a child and becomes equally cruel and self involved.
By framing the story is this way, Andrea Arnold has given me a new perspective on one of my favorite books. She has made me wonder whether Emily Bronte was trying to write a story about the consequences of bigotry, repression and conformity in a similar way to Thomas Hardy writing Tess of the D’Urbervilles. She has also made me wonder whether Heathcliff is an emblem for Bronte’s idea of childhood. He represents a state of blissful selfishness and unfettered desire. The two children are so uninhibited that they create a bond existing outwith civil/adult/accepted behaviors. When Cathy lifts the back of Heathcliffs shirt and tenderly licks the wounds inflicted by Joseph’s cane, it is shocking how intimate the gesture is. But in their world it makes sense. Heathcliffs sense of betrayal is so easy to understand when Cathy grows up, conforms to the societal ideal and becomes a lady. He wants to stay forever in that free and feral world whereas she knows she will be damned if she does.
The film demands a lot from its audience. The harsh environment we are drawn into underscores the brutality of the story. The moors are unendingly bleak, the wind batters everything (the sound design is primarily the sound of gale force winds), sheets of rain drift their way across the landscape and only the most resilient beings survive. In a completely matter of fact way, death is everywhere. There are dead birds trussed up from the ceilings, blood seeping out through their eyes, or being plucked ready for cooking. Heathcliff breaks the necks of rabbits caught in his traps. Dogs are left hanging by their collars on gateposts. The skulls of animals and birds are sacred mementos for the two friends. The house itself has the appearance of bleached and brittle bones. And yet life teems in that desolate place. Beetles scramble through the mosses, dogs chase each other, birds soar overhead. Cinematographer, Robbie Ryan, who worked with Arnold on both her pervious features, has done some beautiful work here. He uses tones of blue and grey in high contrast to add an ethereal quality to the landscape.
Arnold has also given the film a palpably modern quality. All the costumes, sets, props and language are period. But the way these characters move, inflect and express is distinctly modern. The young Catherine in particular could be any other teenage girl you might see nipping into Primark in Leeds or Sheffield.
It’s not the kind of film you could watch on a Sunday afternoon. I would recommend a large glass of wine in hand to steady your nerves and kill the numbing void you might feel creeping into your soul. But it is brilliant. So knuckle down and stick with it, it’s worth it. Arnold has only depicted half of the book but her film is so complex I could easily write 5,000 words on it.
Sadly though, it does not pass the Bechdel test.