Wuthering Heights: directed Andrea Arnold; written by Andrea Arnold and Olivia Hetreed
The thing about knowledge is that you can’t turn it off, or expel it from your brain once you’ve acquired. That’s why it’s always so problematic watching, then subsequently, critiquing films when you’ve forged such a close relationship with their source material. Thus, I had to will myself on occasion forget the novel and succumb to the story which Andrea Arnold was telling her adaptation of Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Conversely, too, I had to stop myself from giving her the benefit of the doubt when character inclinations seemed muddled and I’d fall back on things I’ve learned from the source. The original, a sprawling a missive which takes up in excess of thirty years is a problematic one to adapt. Arnold’s piece covers about one third of that moving from Heathcliff’s arrival at the Earnshaw home to immediately after the death of Catherine. Umm, spoiler?
Heatcliff, the emotionally unavailable, broody man who an eclectic woman falls for has become a paradigm on which a number of literary and cinematic creations have been based. The Heathcliff of the novel and his historically dark skin has given way to – in Arnold’s narrative – a black Heathcliff. That decision in itself does not immediately destroy the framework of the tale, but Arnold seems to have nothing in particular to say about race and thrusting a black Heathcliff into the story seems to accomplish little. I’d submit that the aspect of the love story which made Wuthering Heights such an enduring spectacle is the bizarreness of it all. Catherine Linton (nee Earnshaw) was as fickle and selfish a heroine as one could find, yet all the while being one we hoped the best for. Similarly, Heathcliff’s most significant attributes were his sullenness and callousness. It does not quite emerge the same with Arnold’s piece, and it’s not – as you might suspect – because she takes great pains to examine the deeper inclinations of her characters. It’s the opposite.
Even if you haven’t read the novel, chances are you’d know that one of the most climatic scenes occurs when Catherine confesses – to her maid – her love for Heathcliff, the man she cannot marry because Hareton (her brother) has “brought him so low”. Other than his silence and his occasionally garbled speech there is not much which indicates a Heathcliff that has been brought very low and since Arnold makes an even more curious decision to excise the portion where Catherine explicitly confesses her love the unfamiliar reader would, I’m sure, be at a loss to understand why when he returns years later the seemingly happily married Catherine seems so perturbed. True, Arnold attains the mood of Bronte’s prose effective. With a story like this, though, I cannot fully endorse mood over narrative and Arnold zeroes in on the mood but at the expense of narrative. It’s not that I’m necessitating a full out transferral of prose to cinema – an impossibility – but when the older Catherine Linton, the would-be heroine (beautifully played by Kaya Scodelario, easily best in show) is given a mere 20 minutes of screen-time – perhaps less – we’re not quite certain who in this story we’re to root for, other than the windy planes which are excellently shot.
All is Fair / C