Academy Award winner Andrea Arnold’s latest film progresses poetically, and its quiet unfolding admirably captures the lonely intensity of the novel. “Wuthering Heights” opens today in New York theaters after premiering in Europe last year.
Arnold’s adaptation emphasizes the environment, the elements, and the interconnectedness of Heathcliff and Catherine with the land. “Nature can be wild, unpredictable, violent, and selfish—just like people,” Arnold said.
Not wanting to be influenced by other filmmakers’ takes on the thorny tale, Arnold avoided watching other adaptations of the Emily Brontë novel.
One of Arnold’s divergences from other film versions comes in her decision to cast a black actor in the role of Heathcliff and to focus on his perspective and trajectory of alienation. “It wasn’t so much exactly who he was or where he came from—it was more his difference,” Arnold said. In the novel, Heathcliff’s race is somewhat murky, though he is cast as an outsider. Arnold elaborates upon the idea of “difference” and depicts the ways in which being classified as such shaped Heathcliff’s person.
“For me, Emily was identifying with Heathcliff’s difference and estrangement and was interested in exploring it,” Arnold said.
The film depicts the “Wuthering Heights” house as cramped and claustrophobic. There are many images of confinement and entrapment throughout the film. Arnold says she was also interested in what it meant to be female and feminine during that time. “There are lots of images, in the book, of birds’ wings being ripped off, and feathers—there’s a lot of fear of puberty,” Arnold said.
Cinematographer Robbie Ryan, who has worked with Arnold on her previous projects “Fish Tank” (2009) and “Red Road” (2006), has achieved something direct and impactful. The shots are beautiful, immediate, and at times disconcerting. Ryan frequently presents intense close-ups, and viewers must orient themselves to know what they are seeing. The interior shots trap the viewer inside the dark, cramped house with the rain pouring down noisily from outside. (Arnold chose to forgo a score and instead focus on and magnify natural sounds.) The film won Best Cinematography at the Venice Film Festival.
Non-actors were chosen to depict Cathy and Heathcliff as children.
“I wanted the heights to feel raw and the grange to feel more mannered,” Arnold said. Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer give impressive, unforced performances as young Heathcliff and Cathy. Kaya Scodelario and James Howson are also very well cast as the adult incarnations. However, the characters’ transitions to adulthood feel a little abrupt. Arnold takes her time with their childhoods, letting the story unfurl organically and allowing the audience to meet the characters unhurriedly. So much of the action, though, is packed into the last quarter of the film that the switch in pace feels a little jarring.
The movie may not be perfect, but it captures something essential. Arnold presents Heathcliff and Cathy in all their enigmatic, prickly, and masochistic glory. She depicts interconnectedness and wholeness alongside and inside great violence and torture. The sadness and bittersweet beauty of the book are undoubtedly there.