Saturday, 14 April 2012

Hello Young Lovers

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.
Mr. Earnshaw brings home the mostly silent Heathcliff one night – “It’s the Christian thing to do” he tells his wife, and two children. They’re none too pleased. The rash Catherine spits in his face, his wife observes vaguely annoyed, his son worries that he’s been replaced. Soon, Catherine warms up to the idea of the new addition and the two begin to roam the moors together. From a purely technical angle Arnold is certain of the story she wants to tell – and it’s not quite Bronte’s, but one of childhood fascination. Her camera is rarely still, her sound design is seldom settled and as the pair of young actors – often wordlessly – takes to the screen their inclinations for the most part are unembellished. For the most part. Heathcliff is a problematic character, and kudos are owes to Solomon Glave for doing a fair job with the role, but – and I suspect that more of this is owed to Arnold’s direction – he never truly descends into the sullenness of the character one anticipates.

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.
Arnold is clearly a woman with a keen visual eye and in critiquing a film one can only consider what is within the frame – not what is without. Story wise the film seems to depend on the audience’s knowledge of the novel which makes for a tetchy narrative, even as the technical prowess of the piece excel. And it’s unfair to Arnold, but I couldn’t help thinking what a female director like Jane Campion could have done with such a complex piece. At the very least, Arnold might have fared better if she’d allowed for someone else to take the reins of the screenplay. The entire film reverberates with images of Catherine and Heathcliff at the their youngest so that it becomes clear that Arnold’s point is for us to use the bond their forge at such a young age to indicate that their fates will be inextricably linked. It’s an admittedly nice touch. It sort of renders everything post-Heathcliff’s first departure as supplementary which makes for a new and at times refreshing Wuthering Heights, and I like that. But – and this is the same problem I had with her Fish Tank, I feel as if Arnold is incapable of delving as deeply into the psyche of her characters as she would like. Or, as I would like.
So, then, perhaps you might consider my eventual grade not so much as a work-in-progress but as a benefit of the doubt grading which is, admittedly a wonky manner to go about grading a film. This, of course, makes me think that perhaps Nick is on to something when he decides not to attach grades to his film reviews. Maybe. Still, as an artistic entity Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is an auspicious entry in the cinematic canon of 2012. Maybe – just maybe – my uncertainty in coming to a certain conclusion is just an indication of how complex a work it is. And, yes, I still want better for the actual story of Bronte’s novel; but, a novel is not a film and this film is certainly not a novel. And, although its story might not be a beacon its vessel is a beautiful one. And does it, then, drift into style over substance. Possibly. But, in attempting to capture the uncertain cadence of youthful infatuation, it might be the better for it. Maybe.

All is Fair / C

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