11:32 am Oct. 5, 2012
Last Tuesday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, following a sneak preview screening of Andrea Arnold’s dark, fiercely sensual adaptation of Wuthering Heights, out today, the Scottish director opened her Q & A session with a stream of self-abuse.
“I am a stupid cow,” she said, laughing as she explained her decision to add another to the innumerable versions of Emily Brontë’s Victorian-lit classic. “It is a foolish thing to do.”
A full, somewhat disoriented house was being treated to the side effects of the director’s jet lag: in between bouts of keeping her own flipness in check, Arnold went on to call herself “silly,” “cheap,” and “a chav at heart.” It was, as she herself suggested, like listening to someone justify a consuming but ill-considered love affair: “You know it’s wrong but you just go ahead anyway.”
Her movies (Red Road, Fish Tank) are as light and deflective as they are absorbing and unnervingly bleak, and so Arnold’s presence on the BAM stage was a jarring contrast to the preceding two hours of gorgeously atmospheric if somewhat wearying melancholy.
“I know you want to go home and cry in your beer,” Arnold said, thanking those who remained after the credits. “So do I.”
Instead she submitted, in highly quotable style, to questioning about this singular, perspective-driven interpretation of a well-known story. Her answers were playfully but determinedly pitched against the notion of some stable or authoritative vision for the film: who really knows why they do the things they do, creatively or otherwise?
That spirit of submission to the world’s awful, wondrous instability permeates Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, which as it happens also begins with a bout of self-punishment.
In its opening moments the adult Heathcliff (James Howson) goes several rounds with himself in hectic close-up; we thrash around with him in the attic where he and the young Catherine Earnshaw used to curl up and carve each other’s names into the wall. From there we move back in time to Heathcliff’s arrival on Thrushcross Grange as an orphaned boy, and the rest of the film plays out as an exercise in sensual memory, the story stripped down to its essential rhythms and expressed through fragmented vignettes and a deep sympathy with its antihero.
The violence of the opening scene pledges Arnold’s allegiance to the epic darkness of Wuthering Heights, which she says captivated her as a teenage girl. Having suffered somewhat from its status as another too-much-adapted, overly decorous nineteenth-century romance novel, Arnold resolved to draw out the love story’s gnarled inversions. “This is a record of hate,” Graham Greene’s narrator insists in The End of the Affair; a similar blackness sets Heathcliff’s longing into relief.
As much as love and devotion, rage and resentment animate the young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), whose first, spiteful encounter with Catherine (Shannon Beer) gives way to a tenderness so foreign and sustaining that it enslaves them both.
Arnold cast most of her actors (including Lee Shaw, who plays Catherine’s monstrous, shaven-headed older brother Hindley) off the streets of Leeds and Sheffield; she shot on the Yorkshire moors, where the novel is set. The goal of an authentic, unfussy mood (young Catherine and Heathcliff in particular look like normal kids) is contrasted with heavily impressionistic, sparsely worded scenes—more like interludes—in which the flutter of a moth, the squish of muddy heath and whip of the wind, and the way Catherine lets her finger rest briefly in the ear of a horse she’s bridling bear significant narrative weight. (A focus on ambient sound enhances the mood; there is no soundtrack. Arnold’s frequent collaborator Robbie Ryan won an award for best cinematography for the film at last year’s Venice Film Festival.) The story of their impossible bond is forged in moments and motifs, some of which begin to wear as the story goes on.
The inevitable groaner came early in the post-screening Q & A, when an older gentleman asked Arnold whether she thought it was cliché to cast a black Heathcliff and style Hindley as a skinhead.
“Yeah, probably,” Arnold shrugged, before rallying in her own defense.
“But then you haven’t seen it before, so how can it be a cliché?”
Having joined a production of the film already in progress, Arnold scrapped the existing script and resolved to tell the story from Heathcliff’s point of view. She did some Freudian analysis of her source material—supposing Heathcliff as Brontë’s id, Catherine her ego, and Edgar (James Northcote), Catherine’s devoted husband, her superego—but ultimately decided Heathcliff alone was the author’s stand-in. So in that sense Wuthering Heights presents a feminine perspective, something Arnold claims has kept male readers away.
All interesting things to think about; if only the film proved as interesting to watch. Arnold’s devotion to Heathcliff’s perspective goes beyond novelty to generate heat and emotion through the first hour, but especially after the jump forward to Heathcliff and Catherine’s adult selves (the latter is played by Kaya Scodelario; one of the cast’s few professional actresses, she gives one of the least successful performances), the spell begins to disperse.
Although the second half of the novel has been discarded, Arnold can’t avoid plot entirely; its bones stick out awkwardly in places, especially when the central pair are forced to articulate the unspoken. Instead of offering a release, their scenes tend to deflate the film’s hard-won, delicate erotic energy. As well the endless crossing and re-crossing of the moor, with Heathcliff the chronic outsider staring into or out of windows, interrupts the film’s intuitive energy with thudding bricks of theme.
“My films are always about following one person,” Arnold said, defending her decision to use the boxy 1:33 aspect ratio. She thought of it as more of a portrait frame, one that “gives the human a lot of respect and a lot of weight and makes them more powerful. You feel close to them.” Though we are cleaved to him in almost every scene, in fact there is a certain lack of synergy between Heathcliff and the viewer, a persistent gap at the center of the film. Arnold described placing her concern for the character above that she might have for the audience, a tricky approach to a story that seeks to balance internal and external, the deeply psychological with the sumptuously, overtly emotional. Which is not to say we aren’t devastated by Heathcliff’s fate, which is laid out before him as the film ends, it just never quite carries us away.
Photos, from top: director Andrea Arnold, by Rankin; Young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Young Catherine (Shannon Beer), by Agatha Nitecka; Heathcliff (James Howson), by Agatha Nitecka. All courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories.
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