Postcard from Venice: Andrea Arnold Gives Us the First Black Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights
Two hours after seeing Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights, screening here in competition, I'm still fighting my way across this rugged moor of a movie, a vast, wild place where Arnold's vision and Emily Brontë's meet eye to eye and claw to claw. Arnold's reading of Bronte's weird, unabashedly sick novel is daring for sure: This is a film filled with interesting choices that, in the end, may not be all that interesting -- it's more self-conscious than Arnold's other films, Red Road and Fish Tank, perhaps partly because, unlike those movies, it's based on familiar source material.
Arnold might have guessed that her every choice would be puzzled over and discussed by critics (the first step on a film's road to reaching real viewers), and sure enough, she was right: My colleagues and I spilled out of the screening, warily approaching one another to gauge our reactions to Arnold's approach, which is simultaneously ambitious and modest. (The film is presented in a nearly square aspect ratio, an unusual but effective choice for a picture whose landscape figures so effectively.) Most significantly and most obviously, Arnold has made Heathcliff a black man -- he's played, in his young and older versions, respectively, by Solomon Glave and James Howson. Maybe you don't need to go that far in order to reinforce Heathcliff's outsider status, but it does cast this story of a doomed love affair in an especially stark and risky setting.
This is something of a pointillist Wuthering Heights, a story told more with dots and dashes than with long, bold strokes. Young Heathcliff (at this point played by Glave) arrives at a Yorkshire farm one dark and gloomy night -- he's been brought there by the owner in an act of kindness after being found homeless on the streets of Liverpool. At first the farmer's daughter, Cathy (played at this point by Shannon Beer), spits at him. But before long the two are inseparable, spending their hours exploring the bitterly beautiful landscape around them, which Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan bring to life in a series of still shots, sometimes held for inordinately long stretches of time, of moths beating their wings restlessly against a windowpane, or clusters of heather thriving in the hard ground, or birds' feathers drifting down from the heavens. At one point Heathcliff clings to Cathy as the two straddle a galloping horse; for him the moment is a blur of sensation, as Cathy's hair, the wind, the horse's flank conjoin in a flash of discovery and strange bliss.
Cathy and Heathcliff are torn apart as children and meet again, under changed circumstances, as adults (now played by Kaya Scodelario and Howson), and their story goes awry in every possible way. Arnold is deeply attuned to the feral nature of Brontë's book, and to the cruelty Cathy and Heathcliff inflict on one another. In fact, she doesn't turn away for a second in depicting the harshness of the landscape, and the way the pair's relationship is entwined with it. As youngsters, they wrestle in the mud, acknowledging the erotic charge between them without fully comprehending it. Later they ride through that landscape on horseback, or, even more significantly, they walk and walk through it, as if they were drawing the earth's energy through the soles of their feet. There's very little dialogue here, perhaps partly because Arnold is working largely with nonprofessional actors, as she has done in the past. The performers here exchange a lot of Meaningful Looks, but you generally know what their thoughts and intentions are.
The earthiness of Arnold's approach -- she cowrote this adaptation with Olivia Hetreed -- does amount to a degree of pretension: Her choices are so bold and definitive that you're always aware of them as filmic choices. She subjects us to on-screen killings of sheep and rabbits (the latter reminiscent of Louis Malle's Lacombe, Lucien) and, for my taste, there's one too many puppy-hangings (though I'm sure that, unlike that sheep and that rabbit, the dogs were rescued in real life before succumbing). And in the end, I didn't get the emotional charge from Wuthering Heights that I was waiting for, hoping for. But it's certainly one of the thorniest and most thought-provoking films of the festival. And although it's been some 25 years since I read the book, I was surprised at the way Arnold reminded me of its unnerving emotional undercurrents, and of Bronte's mystical-brutal view of the presence of nature in love and sex. As literary adaptations go, it's both doggedly faithful and willfully untamed -- a movie that's hard, maybe, to love, but easy to respect.