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Zettel Film Reviews » Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold: Emily Bronté it ain’t

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Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold: Emily Bronté it ain’t

 

Catherine and Heathcliff

 

 

Wuthering Heights – Andrea Arnold

“Well I’m not going to move to Yorkshire.” Comment from a guy I’ve never met as we left the Curzon. He was I think responding to the weather which dominates Arnold’s film, but his remark would have been just as apt referring to the characters as portrayed in a film describing itself as “inspired by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.” In Arnold’s Hobbesian vision, lives on the bleak, unyielding moors are certainly “nasty, brutish and short.”

Many of you will have heard me quote Willam Goldman’s dictum on adaptations of books: that you cannot be true to the book because of the difference in forms; but that you must be true to the spirit of the book.

I don’t think this Wuthering Heights is remotely true to the spirit of Emily Bronte’s extraordinary creation. As a film in itself it seems to me it is perversely badly lit, poorly written, awkwardly acted and depressingly lacking a single second of human warmth or affection: for the characters or their story. It is on any basis; adapted, based on, or grandiosely ‘inspired by’; a travesty of a book generally regarded as one of the most powerful and impressive in English Literature. The film diminishes the characters, the narrative and the rich complexity of emotions and human relationships especially between men and women that so infuse the original.

Bronte’s Catherine and Heathcliff are not only two of the best known characters in English fiction; they are just as deepy perplexing and challenging to contemporary conventional assumptions about men and women as they were shocking to the Victorian society that first encountered them. Arnold’s conception of these characters is by contrast trite and shallow to a degree that the unfortunate actors who have to try to bring them alive on screen struggle to express a depth of emotion and passion that nothing they do or say in the film renders believable.

Casting Heathcliff as black no matter how much weight Ms Arnold attaches to a few lines in the text seems to me a perverse act of aesthetic conceit. This isn’t a racist remark: but if you are going to cast against type so radically then you have to make it work – and it doesn’t. It fundamentally alters the emotional and moral dynamic of the narrative in ways that Arnold does nothing to acknowledge or explore: and having Heathcliff call the Linton’s “f***ing c**ts” or he in turn being termed a ‘n**ger’ is gratuitously insufficient. All seem to me like gimmicks to manufacture controversy.

James Howson as the adult Heathcliff is wooden and awkward though the way Arnold directs his scenes and the minimalist clunky dialogue he is given makes it hard to blame him. Kaya Scodelario is a pretty but bloodless adult Catherine who, perched on a windswept rock before an unremittingly bleak moor, asks Heathcliff “how could you leave all this and me?” ‘Only too easily’ jumped into more minds than mine at this point I suspect.

It is Arnold’s fault not Howson’s that this Heathcliff exudes none of the unsettling contradictions of Bronte’s extraordinary creation: a man both thrilling and terrifying; tender and irredeemably cruel. Nor a Catherine as wilful, wild and unpredictable as the forces of nature that bred and nurtured her: capable of a passion as obsessional as it was doomed and unwise. Edgar Linton, instead of being a gentle man and gentleman, offering all the security and safety a conventional woman might want, is portrayed as a totally pathetic, wimpish jerk no woman would go near.

I do agree with most comments I have read that the young Heathcliff and Catherine are a little better, though precisely because of Scodelario’s wishy washy Catherine, it’s a bit of a leap to her from Shannon Beer’s feisty, earthy young Catherine.

However Arnold subverts all her own characters with a mise en scene that is unremittingly dirty and squalid; interiors unrelievedly dark and depressing; and exteriors that appear most of the time to have been shot in a monsoon. Now this is all very atmospheric and at times quite artily appealing but leaves no time for Arnold to establish and engage us with her characters.

It is an Andrea Arnold trademark that all poor people, here a farming family, live in absolute squalor: filthy clothes, dogs and dogshit all over the floors etc etc. This is such patronising nonsense. Wuthering Heights had a housekeeper – Ellen Dean who by all accounts was affectionate and hardworking. Even when the young Catherine and Heathcliff establish a bond that will be their downfall, this has to be wallowing in mud. The in-your-face earthiness of the setting contrasts oddly with the coyly ambiguous sexuality of the moment. One feels a repressed sexual potency at the heart of Bronte’s book that Arnold never seems comfortable with. In the scene with Heathcliff and Catherine’s dead body both the actor and the Director seem awkward and uncertain as to what they are trying to convey thus generating a somewhat weird tone.

There is something right about the vision of the characters here with their petty concerns being dwarfed into insignificance by the bleak implacable beauty and necessity of the Yorkshire moors but Arnold’s vision is alwayswintry and she spends so much indulgent time filming nature: from incessant rain and wind to uncontextualised symbolism with fluttering moths, crawling insects, dead and dying animals; even a presumably CGI’ed floating feather. For such a ‘realist’ filmmaker Arnold has an odd attraction to sentimental, clichéd imagery.

All this leaves no time at all for her to develop her characters; essential as she is playing against our expectations and familiarity. Ellen (Nelly) Dean, vital as narrator and emotionally stable epicentre of Bronte’s novel, is reduced here to a bit part. Arnold also has to dump half the story and end on a sentimentally tragic note totally alien to the book. This false note is further reinforced by a weirdly inappropriate folky pop song over the end scene and credits which instantly destroys the very atmosphere Arnold has so painstakingly built up.

As a stand-alone film this is leaden and depressing, the only relief coming from some at times powerful cinematography. As an adaptation of a literary classic it adds nothing to our understanding of an admittedly complex book. Re-reading the book will cost half the price of a cinema seat. Seems like a better choice to me.

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