British director Andrea Arnold tests the limits of how radically one may re-envision a classic while still remaining true to its themes in her new version of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, in theatres today.
Just as she had in her last film Fish Tank (2009) she announces her intentions from the very first shot by beginning in medias res, introducing a hero, already in turmoil, alone in a room — orienting and disorienting us at one and the same time. For those of us who know the oft-told tale by heart, it’s obvious the young man is Heathcliff and Kathy has already died. He is so distraught he is banging his skull against the wall, doing himself injury. This level of abandon is new. As is the fact that the actor (James Howson) is black. Also new is the film’s mode of hyper-realism, high def video, often hand-held, often close to the actors in confined spaces, or else out with them on the desolate, barren heaths of Yorkshire — it looks like nothing so much as the recent footage back from Mars.
What is interesting to me is how Arnold gets to the motive power of Romanticism, its passion (often descending to downright savagery) but eschews some of the trappings endemic to its own era, chiefly a language that sounds to us relatively flowery and genteel. Arnold’s Earnshaws, while landowners, have been turned by their isolation into primitives beyond anything Bronte ever dreamt of…they are like cavemen, or the cannibalistic Beane family, or some Faulker degenerates in Mississippi. Whole scenes are shot without dialogue, communication occuring through scowls and snarls and ear-boxings…or in the cases of the children Heathcliff and Kathy (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer) from deep, penetrating, knowing looks. Such dialogue as there is, is spare, garbled, and heavily accented. The men are skinheads and (as was done in the tv western Deadwood) the characters all speak with anachronistic profanity. This seems of a piece with making Heathcliff black, as opposed to the gypsy Bronte writes about (naturally played by a long succesion of whites in the movies and on television : Laurence Olivier, Charlton Heston, Ian McShane, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes — not a molecule of chocolate to be had in that array of vanilla). Also, the house of the Earnshaws, a country manor in the book (see a scholars vision of it here) has become a cave-like warren in Arnold’s version, practically a hobbit-hole, built of the same stones as the pasture walls. Only the fireplace seems to differentiate it from the stable next door.
These gestures all seem calculated to break through the jaded, modern consciousness, which nowadays can’t seem to brook a whodunit that doesn’t climax in fireballs. Call it the “Extreme” Wuthering Heights. On the other hand, other aspects of the setting are realized with perfect realism and are extreme enough…the incessant and fierce winds, the constant dampness, the muddiness of the earth (everyone is encrusted in it), and the emptiness of the landscape. Who wouldn’t become a mad dog here? Meanwhile, the nearby Linton estate is properly genteel and seems historically accurate.
I’m afraid I’ve written an entire review and so far have spoken only about the style and the atmosphere. But more than just about any other story, Wuthering Heights requires those elements to be established in order for us to “get” it. Just as in Fish Tank (set in a bleak Council Flat in Kent), environment shapes character and thus destiny. The performances in the film are all terrific and real and it feels largely because the director has created the right landscape (both physical and emotional) to support them. I hope this film gets wide exposure; there is much to learn from this film-maker. For theatres and showtimes, consult your local listings.