For a film based on Kate Bush’s whimsical 80’s ode to love and interpretative dance, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights features surprisingly little music. Almost none, in fact, until the final burning throes introduce the plinkety plonk of Mumford and Sons’ own brand of generic, Alpha Course “nu-folk” (Andrea, how could you?) Joking aside, Arnold’s adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Gothic 1847 novel offers much in the way of textual reinterpretation, and the lack of music is only the beginning of the radicalism on show.
Indeed, this film is destined to be celluloid Marmite, hated by purists, and loved by those tired of the same old run-of-the-mill adaptations. Arnold dispenses with the staid clichés of period drama – the brooding score, heaving bosoms and Mr. Darcy pole-up-the-bum mutterings of so many past literary adaptations – and replaces it with a visceral, seething ramble through the wild Yorkshire moors and turbulent emotions of young, destructive love.
Whether you like it or not, Arnold’s take is unarguably admirable for its bravery and radically anti-commercial stance. With spare dialogue and little music, the sounds of nature (the crunching and squelching of soggy leaves, the splat of clay-grey mud, a bird’s call or the yelp of a beaten dog) dominate the soundscape. The young actors, mostly unprofessional, offer a rather amusingly odd English drama version of mumblecore with their broad accents, grunts and mumbles, all “fucks”, “cunts” and “sods”. The film also dispenses with any attempts at period realism; costumes veer from the Regency period to rough and mud-spattered 19th century regional country clothing, and even include a dash of This Is England skinhead glamour in the bald skull and tank top work gear of Cathy’s brother. You can almost see the Fred Perry insignia through the thick Yorkshire mist.
Arnold is mostly true to the text that she uses (the second half of the novel is excised entirely), and this is much to the benefit of the film, which even so suffers from being around half an hour too long. The two young actors who play Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) are terrific, their elder counterparts (James Howson and Kaya Scodelario) much less so; Howson just doesn’t have the brooding gravitas you would expect from such a Byronic anti-hero, and he doesn’t engage convincingly with the rest of the cast. Apart from the Mumford and Sons end piece, my main annoyance with the film lies in its transition from young to older actors. The grown-ups bear neither physical nor emotional relation to the young ones, and as such, disrupt the credible flow of the film.
Potentially Arnold’s most radical reinterpretation of Bronte’s text is to make Heathcliff black. Much has been written about this, leading many to suggest the change is a bit gimmicky. His “blackness” is, to a certain extent, already present in the text, where he is described as both a “dark-skinned gypsy” and “Spanish castaway”. Arnold’s decision also emphasises his outsider role by positioning him within a racial, rather than a class-based, dynamic of otherness. He is repeatedly called “nigger”, is beaten and abused, accused of thieving and murder, and vilified by his adopted family. While this reinterpretation is compelling, it doesn’t feel wholly credible, as the point of Heathcliff’s outsider nature lies in the ambivalence of his background; he is a mysterious Other, with no past, no cultural roots, no ties to anything other than Cathy, and the emphasis on his race takes away from this somewhat.
The film’s great power lies in the way in which Arnold visually recreates the chaotic and tumultuous romantic and visual landscapes of the novel. Her famous hand-held camera trawls through long, dew-stained grasses and spiky yellow heads of gorse. It hangs behind Cathy’s head, catching the faint down of hair on her neck, or the bright red of her hair in the sun. It soars across moors lashed by rain and wind, catches puddles of mud being squelched through the fingers of little hands. The bright pink of a flower immediately floods the screen with colour; the grey doom-laden clouds hang suspended in a sky so wet with the oncoming storm you can almost smell it. This is the kind of cinematography you can get really excited about.
Furthermore, through Arnold’s eye, people morph into animals, animals into people. Cathy’s brother and his wife fuck like dogs on the moors, while young Heathcliff looks on. Dogs are taunted by men, hung up on fences to squirm and writhe, or kicked, like Heathcliff is repeatedly throughout the film. In one of the most beautiful scenes, young Cathy tenderly licks the wounds on Heathcliff’s back, lapping a small tongue like an animal would milk or a wound, while a fat tear drips down his face. The wound metaphor is one of many in the film. Heathcliff’s family and circumstance have created the welts and bruises which young love tries to heal, and which Heathcliff seeks to reopen as an act of revenge.
Wuthering Heights is also rich with symbolism, much of which is laden with a heavy hand. Cathy in the living room is contrasted with a bird in a cage; Heathcliff with a dead rabbit. The horse – a favourite of Arnold’s it seems, and used to similar effect in Fish Tank – is rendered symbolic of brutalised, restricted freedom. Yes, yes, alright, we get it. The subtler elements of symbolism and parallel are far more effective. Cathy’s brother’s girlfriend giving birth standing up with her legs open on the moors is as clear an image as any of the parallels between man and beast which Arnold draws from the text.
So, perhaps for the breathtaking cinematography alone, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a flawed but fresh must-see. Just be sure to make a bee-line for the bog as soon as the end credits come on.
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