By Don Simpson | October 12, 2012
Director: Andrea Arnold
Writers: Andrea Arnold (screenplay), Olivia Hetreed (screenplay), Emily Brontë (novel)
Starring: James Howson, Solomon Glave, Shannon Beer, Kaya Scodelario, Paul Hilton, Simone Jackson, Steve Evets, Lee Shaw, Amy Wren, Eve Coverley, Jonathan Powell, Oliver Milburn, Emma Ropner, Richard Guy, Michael Hughes, James Northcote, Nichola Burley
When we first meet Heathcliff (James Howson) he repeatedly throws his body against the graffitied wall of a seemingly abandoned bedroom. Heathcliff is like a caged primal beast, driven mad to the point of this masochistic behavior.
Suddenly we flash back, several years earlier, to a younger Heathcliff’s (Solomon Glave) reluctant submersion into the civilized world of the Earnshaw’s household by the family’s patriarch (Paul Hilton). Covered in filth and riddled with scars, Heathcliff is assumed to be a young Afro-Caribbean slave who has escaped captivity, somehow finding his way to the sparsely settled Yorkshire moors. Heathcliff discovers a kindred untamed spirit in Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer), whose face is still a bit chubby with baby fat, signifying her innocence and youth. Together they frolic like feral beasts in the fog and rain of the English countryside, unbridled by parental supervision; only to return home to be beaten and reprimanded for their childish incivilities. Their relationship culminates on the day that Heathcliff violently rejects his baptism and Catherine revels in his savage rebellion — for all intents and purposes, this is the precise moment that they fall in love.
Unfortunately, Catherine and Heathcliff’s interracial love is one that could never be officiated in late 18th century England. Besides, Heathcliff has no source of income to support a family; and, eventually, Catherine’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) forces Heathcliff to become the Earnshaw family’s slave. Because of his love for Catherine, Heathcliff is willing to endure Hindley’s racially-motivated physical and mental abuse. Heathcliff is mentally held captive by his attraction to Catherine, while remaining physically caged by Hindley.
Then, a wealthy neighbor — Edgar Linton (Jonathan Powell) — begins courting Catherine. Assuming that Catherine has chosen Edgar over him, Heathcliff disappears. Several years later, a mature and presumably wealthy Heathcliff reappears at the Earnshaw home in search of Catherine; but, by now, Catherine and Edgar have married and have taken custody of the Linton’s modest mansion. So, Heathcliff rents a room from Hindley, who is willing to take Heathcliff’s money, but is unable to show him any respect despite Heathcliff’s obvious success in the world.
Out of place and out of time, no one ever learns of how Heathcliff achieved financial success. Hindley assumes that Heathcliff must have lied, cheated and stolen in order to acquire such wealth; but there is an ambiguous allusion that Heathcliff may have traveled a far distance to a place where black slaves could become free (and wealthy) men. For example: Heathcliff’s use of modern language — words such as “cunt” — is so jarring that it is as if the profanity is being screamed from the mouth of a visitor from the future.
Writer-director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) de[con]structively whittles down Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to its core elements of cruelty and violence. This is a sado-masochistic world in which characters mentally torment themselves and each other to the point of death. Racism lies at the root of much of the animosity and torture. Walls, doors and windows form physical barriers, symbolizing the mental ones being constructed within the characters’ minds. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is about captivity, whether its physical or mental. Human relationships are revealed to be like handcuffs that bind two people together, despite the possible repercussions. No matter how much the characters flail away, they are trapped like dogs hanging helplessly by their collars on fence posts (a recurring visual in Arnold’s film). Catherine and Heathcliff’s blood-lust signifies their primal desire to consume each other like vampires; just as sheep, geese and rabbits are drained of their blood.
As part of her simplification of Brontë’s novel, Arnold removes a majority of the source dialogue, opting for natural silence. Most noticeably, Arnold completely scraps Nelly (Simone Jackson) and Lockwood’s (a character from the novel who is cut from the film) narration, instead telling the story from Heathcliff’s voyeuristic perspective. Heathcliff is an outsider looking in, keenly observing (and often visibly casting judgment upon) the foreign world of white English families. As with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Arnold utilizes the 4:3 aspect ratio to visually confine her characters despite the sprawling and unsettled landscape of the Yorkshire moors. Heathcliff sees the world with a dense — at times, practically impenetrable and suffocating — air. We are always aware of the air, whether it be on an elemental level with wind, rain, fog, snow; or via more allegorical imagery of floating dust, feathers and hair.
Also akin to Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, Arnold opts for cinematic minimalism in terms of the natural lighting and sound of Wuthering Heights — in addition to the aforementioned sparseness of dialogue, the film only features diegetic sound other than one Mumford & Sons track that plays during the closing scene and end credits. That said, Arnold takes a lot of artist liberties in the visual qualities of Wuthering Heights. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan (Fish Tank) utilizes impressionistic and experimental techniques to develop a visual poeticism that is drenched in sensuality; then Nicolas Chaudeurge’s (Fish Tank) practically haphazard editing adds yet another layer of overt artfulness. As a result, Wuthering Heights is a strange Frankenstein-like creature that combines the distinct cinematic worlds of kitchen sink realism, art house and slow cinema; the confluence of which forms a beautiful beast. I would love to see more 18th and 19th century period pieces told with such gritty authenticity. I wonder if Arnold is up for doing a few Jane Austen or Charles Dickens adaptations?