Wuthering Heights (2011)
***** out of 5
Having dealt with complex, and often taboo, relationships in her two previous films Red Road (woman and the man who killed her family) and Fish Tank (mother-daughter, daughter and mother’s boyfriend), Andrea Arnold seems an ideal candidate to take on the classic tale of torturous love that is Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Her new retelling may not be exactly what ardent Bronte fans had in mind, it is however, all the better for it.
The story of Catherine and Heathcliff has been retold numerous times in the guise of lavish costume dramas, amid the odd international take, and starring the likes of Laurence Olivier, Juliette Binoche and Tom Hardy to name but a few. Arnold’s version has neither merchant ivory production values nor star names, instead choosing to cast two sets of virtually unknown actors to play younger and older versions of the ill-fated couple. It proves to be a good move, as the younger of the quartet Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave in particular, give what are at times, colossal performances.
The film begins at the eponymous cottage, isolated and vulnerable against the enraged elements. Mr Earnshaw (Paul Hilton), a devout Christian, returns home from Liverpool with a young semi-literate boy (Glave) to the initial, seemingly universal, distaste of his family home – comprising of his son Hindley (Lee Shaw), daughter Cathy (Beer) and servants Nelly (Simone Jackson) and Joseph (Steve Evets). The arrival of this boy, whom Mr Earnshaw names Heathcliff, irks Hindley, as he subsequently loses the attentions of his ailing father, and following a number of fractious altercations between the pair, Hindley is sent off to college. Prior to this, and indeed following it, Heathcliff and the mischievous, tomboyish Cathy become inseparable; lost in a haze of childhood innocence, and awakening adolescent lust. Mr Earnshaw’s death and Hindley’s subsequent return brutally severs their burdening and intense relationship however, and Cathy soon draws the attentions of the well-to-do, snobby Edgar Linton (Jonny Powell) – the cheese to Heathcliff’s chalk.
It is in these early scenes, found in the first half of the film, that the deep bond between Heathcliff and Cathy is most incredibly and poetically rendered. As one would perhaps expect from a Wuthering Heights adaptation, and indeed from an Arnold film, symbolism is rife throughout. There are a number of cutaways showing pairs of animals for example – we are shown hawks as they hover and soar with graceful abandon and freedom, the household dogs aggressively and vigorously chase one another, displaying a raw and basic desire for animalistic sex, and two moths trapped near a window, repeatedly buzzing and bumping against it, unable to escape – multi-faceted metaphors of the complex, all-consuming nature of the relationship on display. What Arnold is giving us is not love in the sense of romance; this is pure, raw, primal desire and obsession. Heathcliff does not merely love Cathy; she envelops his very soul, intoxicating him to the point of self-destruction. Even their most tender, touching moments together are laced with sensuality and physical yearning. On one such occasion, Heathcliff gently strokes the bare flesh of Cathy’s horse as they ride together, as he simultaneously becomes inebriated with the scent of her hair and the nape of her neck. Furthermore, what begins as a play-fight in the soil becomes heavily charged with eroticism and sexual power-play as a forceful Heathcliff reverses the roles that the societal class system has dealt them, pinning Cathy to the ground. Whilst at another instance the animalism is further underlined, as a young Cathy licks the blood from the wounds of her injured playmate.
Immediately following the switch of actors for the second half of the film, it is almost as if Heathcliff himself has changed also. The mise-en-scene becomes slightly less bleak. The rain subsides, it is sunnier, calmer, more refined – as is he. He is better able to articulate himself now, no more hissing bile or corporal explosions of illiterate impotence. Yet this apparent change is short lived, as his uncontrollable side soon seeps back in. Seeing Cathy resets him and the harsh, unforgiving moors mirror this, as the whirling wind begins to swirl things up once again. Thus although Heathcliff returns as a gentleman, in appearance at least, everything he has left behind has rotted and decayed; cutaways only show single animals now, apples putrefy within a matter of scenes. His Cathy is embittered, wicked and cruel, whilst he is wrought and twisted with a mix of anguish and emptiness. The film comes almost full circle as move unstoppably towards the final crescendo, and we are taken back to its angry, pain-filled and expressive pre-credit sequence; Heathcliff viciously, wearily slams himself into a wall – drawing parallels to a similar scarring scene of self-abuse in Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, in which another caged animal, boxer Jake La Motta, repeatedly punches and head-butts his prison cell wall – simultaneously punishing himself and attempting to release his emotions the only way he knows how. We’re a million miles away from Olivier, Fiennes or a bad-boy version of Mr Darcy here. Glave and Howson’s Heathcliff is a raw, savage animal; a wounded lion, tormented and tortured.
In addition to the sensual barrage provided by the imagery and diagetic soundtrack, and indeed to perhaps reinforce it, Arnold is incredibly sparse in terms of dialogue – a brave move when adapting from a literary classic. Her film however is about feeling, not talking about them. It remains that Cathy and Heathcliff do not live ‘happily ever after’, at least partly, because of their inability to communicate their feelings and desires to one another. In this sense, the director and co-writer Olivia Hetreed get it spot on. And just as consumers of Bronte’s novel do not just ‘read’ it, often becoming absorbed by it, so Wuthering Heights is not simply ‘viewed’. Its audience is engulfed by the very soul of the tale; dragged through the mire of the moors, lashed by relentless rain, enveloped by groping gales as Robbie Ryan’s cinematography simultaneously astounds and evokes. And as it ends, after two hours beset with forceful, relentless wuthering, it is clear that Arnold’s film has managed to achieve quite astonishing new heights.