Friday, September 09, 2011

Wuthering Heights: 2011 dir. Andrea Arnold

From the Toronto International Film Festival Programmer's Notes:No starched lace, no panoramic views, no sweeping score — Andrea Arnold has reinvented Wuthering Heights.  
director Andrea Arnold

This Bronte Aficionado has been fortunate this year: first, I had the privilege of attending an advanced screening of Jane Eyre  (my review here) and tonight I had the opportunity to attend the North American premiere of Andrea Arnold’s bold new Wuthering Heights at the Toronto International Film Festival. According to the director’s preluding talk, this film was only finished last Thursday and I am one of the first appreciative handfuls to have witness it on screen.

Before I speak to the visionary adaptation, I feel led to couch my opinions within a broader framework. First, I think when speaking to Wuthering Heights, we should reserve the term Romance to infer its original, philosophical connotation and not its inclusion in modern sensibility (namely, flowers, kissing, sweeping violin music). Secondly, I must confess to coming to this story through a lens of someone who appreciates the source material; but has been more befuddled than fond of  it. Truthfully, I have not read Wuthering Heights since high school. I referenced it in undergrad; but never a full-on re-visitation. However, to speak to the novel’s stoic implantation on my formative psyche, tonight proved that reams of its prose are still firmly housed---verbatim--- in my memory….Why?....
"Heathcliff" and "Catherine" at a screening at the Venice Film Festival

...Because Wuthering Heights acts as empathy to our darker, stormier sensibilities and Arnold’s vision encapsulates this vapid and bleak spot. This is not your Grandmother’s Wuthering Heights with flowerily cravat-ed Laurence Olivier, nor is it your Masterpiece Theatre Wuthering Heights. This adaptation strips the novel to its barest infrastructure. It reads between Emily Bronte’s lines and excavates what is implied; yet previously unsurfaced in film. In a line of adaptations which blot out sensual realism with swelling music and refined, passionate poses, this adaptation dares to go where we don’t want Wuthering Heights to go: beyond the seeming endless romance to the sinister world of abuse and alienation.

As does the novel, the film begins with Heathcliff book-ending his relationship with the now deceased Catherine Linton, nee Earnshaw. His dirty fingers greedily trace their imprinted names on crude cement (writings on the wall are a major motif in the film), his forehead bears the marks of self-inflicted despair and the window above him is victim to the portentous scraping of branches against grimy glass.  From here, we begin Heathcliff’s journey as residual outcast on the humble farm, Wuthering Heights.

While I took notes throughout the film, my perception of the film will be at times infused with Arnold’s speaking to it in the  Q and A following. Relevant here is passion for location.  She wandered Emily Bronte country and found that unlike the grand estates our mind’s eye might paint when we hear the names Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange, her encounters were with humble hill farms, bleak solitude, and couplings of houses that never once stretch to becoming a full village or hamlet.  Into this solitude wanders Heathcliff, a tow-along by the proprietor of Wuthering Heights, the violent Mr. Earnshaw.  Bronte describes Heathcliff as having the physiognomy of a “dark skinned gypsy” and here, reasonably (and cited at least 6 times in the novel, according to Arnold’s research), played by a black actor. 

From Heathcliff and Cathy’s first encounter they are tied by a virile passion which very much pits them (and pairs them ) against the stormy land which they love.  As much as Heathcliff is abused by Cathy’s older, envious brother Hindley, so Heathcliff and Cathy abuse each other: wrestling often physically for an odd equality.

Their developing relationship is told almost wordlessly and entirely through Heathcliff’s perspective, as the whole of the film is.  Through chinks in broken glass, the sliver of light through a crude door, always barred and alienated, we see the workings of this dirty farmhouse through Heathcliff who desperately wants to find belonging in a home without homeliness. He is given half a perspective, often, as he is given half of a thriving life.

His is a cold world and the elements match his rather stormy and ardently violent make-up.  A sensuous film, the cinematography sweeps through the Moors: gutting the murky under-earth of torrid soil, catching a small bird or bug mid-flight, the bloodletting of a sheep, a rabbit caught in a trap.  Heathcliff is paired with animal characteristics: he is the trapped rabbit, the hounded dog, the butting horse.  It is an elemental and earthy film which sets the landscape up as the character it plays in the novel.  Don’t expect a soundtrack to lead your emotional experience as the noise bleating from the screen reflects the bold nature therein: the breathy grunts of a horse, the panting of a man out of breath, the sound of a whip against Heathcliff’s punished flesh.  Arnold spoke to how she wanted you to feel greatly while watching the film and throughout I noted how sensuous it was: from Heathcliff running his hands over a wool carpet, or touching Catherine’s hair, to the scrape of firewood, to frozen breath escaping in the bleak midwinter, Arnold uses her canvas well.

What is not spoken is surmised and what is spoken is done so when only in Heathcliff’s hearing. This is his story so the famous scene wherein Catherine reveals she means to marry Edgar Linton, while still loving Heathcliff, is truncated by Heathcliff’s abrupt leaving.

As Victorian psychology played with the idea of “good blood” and “bad blood”, original sin and inherent evil, so this exploration of cruelty speaks to how one’s circumstance, experiences in compassion (and likewise droughts without) inform one’s later years.  In a strangely sad cycle, the film which begins with Heathcliff tormented as an outsider, ends with Hareton showing the same sadistic tendencies: trapped at Wuthering Heights, treating harmless animals the same way he feels treated.

Human nature is starkly observed here.  This is not Romance in the traditional sense.  This is not a warm story and certainly not one I would recommend to those who love period dramas as played by the BBC.  However, for Bronte purists, this adaptation is a must.  While you will rail against seeing this resounding classic stroked with grey, you will admit this visceral and vapid incarnation speaks to the level of Bronte’s dimensional psyche. 

Arnold spoke of being confounded by the book, found it a work that she feels is unable to be translated into another medium. She had never seen previous adaptations and so took her vision directly from the novel.  She hit on points we rose-gloss over in our need to derive some proper sense of sentimentality and sensuality   Wuthering Heights is a novel based so much on undying love as undying lust, of strange, sadistic passion, obsession and the need to cling to the one human who acknowledges you with even the slightest bit of companionship. When we see Heathcliff desperately clinging to Cathy’s dead form we know that he is trying to extract any bit of warmth that might still hold him to earth.

 Arnold joked in both pre and post talk of how everyone will need a really stiff drink or two after the viewing and how sweet dreams will come only with valium.  She was right: this is an utterly disturbing and horrifying film. But, at its basest, so is the novel.  We can wrap it in a neat package and serve it to high school students: tapping into the innate anger they experience with their growing pains and capitalizing on raging hormones that echo the teenage virility of Catherine, Heathcliff and their surrounding moors... but this is a dark and hopeless exploration of the darkest recesses of human spirit. Heathcliff is not a loveable roguish bad boy. Instead, he is a sadistic abuser: to Catherine, to Hindley and Hareton, to animals, to his wife, Isabella, and mostly to himself.

As there is no redemption in the novel and as Cathy’s ghost, still bleeding formlessly out on the moors, never quite materializes in the way Heathcliff curses it to, we are left feeling empty, horrified, beguiled---  Moreso by the fact that a parson’s daughter with little social connection in the wide spaces of Ha’worth could construct such a confounding plot than by the “timeless” and “epic” romance enduring between two of the most problematic and unlikeable characters in the Western Canon.

[Thanks, Kat, for making this happen!]

Note: this film is disturbing with scenes of animal cruelty, violent abuse and realistic sexuality. This is not, as mentioned, your typical Masterpiece adaptation of a classic and before you hunt it out on screen, you should go in expecting to be shocked by its mature content.


Debra E. Marvin said...

I appreciate your review. Maybe I'll wait for the small screen :)
This never was a 'feel good' story and I'm sure I'll watch it, but I'm glad to know your thoughts beforehand.

Rachel said...

i really really want people to be warned about this. it is a very very blatant film, very disturbing and with a lot of shocking content. it is not what you will be used to in your victorian adaptations and readers should know that going in.

i recommend it for brontean scholars and aficionados; but feel the general public will derive little enjoyment.

graphic sexuality, nudity and animal cruelty are prevalent. there is not one happy moment in the film. (not that there is much to be happy about in the book).

Anonymous said...

I was lucky enough to see this in Venice. It is an incredibally powerful film and totally gripped me. The power and angst from Heathcliff (James Howson) was perfectly balanced by the delicate and bland romantic love of Edgar Linton (James Northcote) with Cathy - inevitably- wanting both. The setting were riveting and I suspect very authentic, the filming outstanding and the realism of the whole film shockingly brilliant. Not a film to forget easily - so glad I got to see it. And it had 10 minute standing ovation - which I feel was well deserved by Andrea Arnold and the whole project

Gina said...

Does it have the part where Heathcliff slits Hindley's wrist? I don't think I can bear to watch that -- I can scarcely bear to read it. (My dad and I both have this weird thing about knives.)

Rachel said...

@Anonymous: thanks for stopping by! how exciting to see it in Venice. It was a beautifully crafted film and I was, too, impressed with James Howson as Heathcliff

@Gina: no, mercifully we were spared that scene (I am as disturbed by it as you); but you are not spared much else... so this comes as a great caveat!

Danmark said...

This is the best book I have ever read! The first time I did so was in eighth grade at the age of 13 and I loved it even then. However, it is definitely one that requires a lot of thought and logic sometimes it is a very good idea to re-read a paragraph or two. The more times you read it, the more you get from it. The plot is similar to 'Holes' in the aspect that it rotates between time periods, but it is more intricate and not as loudly announced. Wuthering Heights is most definitely not for someone who likes to read 'casually' or to 'relax from thinking'.