By Alyssa Pelish, cross-posted from On The Issues Magazine.
The Heathcliff brought home one night in Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights adaptation is a slight and wary boy (played by newcomer Solomon Glave). Through his eyes, unaccustomed to the landscape, we experience the overwhelming rush of the wind and the pelting rain, the hostile murmuring of the farmhouse, and the gurgling of the wet land. These images and sounds ground us in those forces of nature so aligned with the volatile Heathcliff and Catherine of Emily Brontë's iconic novel. Through close, handheld camera shots, the insides of the farmhouse and its stables are claustrophobic, dark spaces as Heathcliff peers through cracked doors and around corners, never at home. Other adaptations just can’t compete with this effect. And so, while the Brontë novel has been adapted for the screen upwards of 15 times, Arnold’s framing of the story from Heathcliff's perspective opens it up.
Shannon Beer as a young Catherine Earnshaw and Solomon Glave as a young Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. Courtesy IMDB/Oscilloscope Pictures.
A single, dominant perspective is what Arnold favors in her films. Her Oscar-winning short and two earlier feature films all identify immediately with a female protagonist who is at odds with and alone in her world. In Fish Tank, for instance, Arnold’s 2010 film, we are submerged in the experience of an emotionally neglected, resentful sixteen-year-old girl in public housing outside London, the camera at times merging the protagonist’s breathing with the telling details she takes in from the backseat of a car or her perch in a vacant apartment. Red Road (2006), Arnold’s first feature length film, literalizes that isolated gaze in a woman who operates a surveillance camera in the aftermath of her husband’s and son’s wrongful deaths. While Arnold’s realist style often earns her comparisons to British social realists such as Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, her dedication to that single, idiosyncratic perspective — and the dramatic consequences it brings — makes her films significantly different.
Brontë’s Catherine avows that she is Heathcliff. In her adaptation, Arnold uses her directorial skills to show us what this might feel like. Yet while Brontë’s Heathcliff is “fiendish” and “demonic,” Arnold’s Heathcliff is quiet and self-contained. In this respect, Arnold also sets him apart from the cinematic tradition that has popularized Brontë’s complicated devil as a dashing Lothario. Also significantly, her Heathcliff is not just dark in the tradition of the Byronic hero: he is clearly of African descent. Given that in this Wuthering Heights, Catherine’s older brother Hindley (Lee Shaw), responsible for much of the cruelty wrought upon Heathcliff, brings to mind a skinhead thug you might find in today’s Essex or Liverpool, the choice of a black Heathcliff brings home to contemporary viewers the racism subtly at play in the novel.
One of the most difficult aspects of adapting Wuthering Heights for the screen is that the intergenerational saga is told by a number of different characters, through both letters and secondhand accounts. Heathcliff is never one of those narrators but, in a very real sense, his figure looms over the entire tale: mistreated by the nominally civil society that takes him in, and ultimately separated from his beloved Catherine, he would extend his revenge even to the descendants of those who have wronged him. For Heathcliff’s gaze to dominate the film acknowledges that long shadow.
Arnold’s decision to spend so much of the film in the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff is also an innovation. While most film renditions check it off as necessary backstory, and even the novel itself devotes only a handful of chapters to it, this film roots more than half of its running time in the early days that the two pass together as children. And this time is indeed important: through the visceral imagery and sounds of their child world, running or idling in the muddy countryside, murmuring in the dark corners of the house, their enduring attachment to each other becomes credible. It is probably here that the film is at its best, in this private world of two children.
Arnold has said that casting the right actors is half the work of getting the performances she wants, and she has done this well with Shannon Beer, who plays the child Cathy. Beer’s Cathy is a dreamy, lively, messy, uninhibited thing, her hair snarled and dress muddied. Her kindness to Heathcliff is clearly what bonds him to her, but her behavior toward him is never presented as over-sentimental or improbably maternal. Instead, she at first seems just curious about him, and then comes to count on his company for the rambles that she leads. It is she who teaches him how to ride a horse, and she who teaches him the words for this new world — lapwing being the significant first word, for the bird that will so often reappear, flying overhead. (As in Fish Tank, Arnold’s use of animal symbolism gets a little heavy handed: there is also a caged canary in the grown-up Cathy’s parlor. And yet, this world is so full of teeming, seething nature, that these nearly totemic creatures feel mostly right.) The film does a good job of showing the two children as close, and even physical, without unnecessarily sexualizing their bond.
Unfortunately, the credibility of the relationship doesn’t endure through the second half of the movie. Three years later, with Cathy (now played by Kaya Scodelario) married into the wealthy family below the Heights and Heathcliff (now played by newcomer James Howson) having made his fortune and returned to seek his revenge, these central characters are thinly drawn. While it is conceivable for the child Cathy to confide in the housekeeper that “Heathcliff is more myself than I,” there is little palpable connection between the grownup, quieter woman and the still reserved Heathcliff — and certainly not the kind of intensity that would motivate the ensuing death and destruction.
The fault here, may actually lie with Arnold's naturalistic directing. This drifting, eavesdropping style, which works so intuitively in the childhood landscape of Cathy and Heathcliff, doesn't square with the major developments of the later story. These inherently dramatic moments, then, when we need to believe in the bond between the two desperate soul mates, seem either forced or difficult to comprehend. Other flaws creep into both halves of the film, largely due to an adherence to Brontë’s plot points that, in a film adaptation, can pile up like mile markers and result in some awkward expository lines. It's an awkwardness that isn’t in Arnold’s original films — which suggests that Arnold herself is not entirely at home in the story's more markedly nineteenth-century territory.
The move from a private, internal world of childhood to the social strictures and disillusionments of adulthood is key to this story, especially as Arnold tells it. And she clearly intends for us to feel the loss of self that is the real tragedy of the story of Catherine and Heathcliff. She gets us halfway there, rather remarkably, in the child world she creates for the two. I wish it had been enough to carry us through to the end.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS (Oscilloscope) is currently playing in New York, opens in Los Angeles this Friday, and will appear nationwide later in the month.
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