I attended a film screening last Friday at Cinema Paradiso in Perth, where I was asked to speak on a film panel about Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights in a ‘Book to Screen’ event. Thanks to Tony Bective from Luna Palace Cinemas for asking me to participate, and Terri-ann White (Director, UWA Publishing) for being such a great host and keeping the conversation going with the audience.
We received some thoughtful questions from the audience, and I’m glad I was made to think critically about the film straight after I first viewed it. It compelled me to get my ideas about this version of Wuthering Heights sorted, and frame them into coherent arguments. My ‘verdict’ of the film is however, ambiguous. I both liked and disliked it. Perhaps I’m too close to the subject matter, and hence a little more critical than I would be of other films. Or perhaps by this stage, I know my stuff enough to offer an informed opinion. Either way, I want to share what I thought of the film.
What I liked ...
Like many other novels, Wuthering Heights has been prettified on screen into something unrecognisable. I’m not a purist. I don’t expect a film to be ‘faithful’ to its source text. But I am curious about how filmmakers, and how we as a wider culture, choose to interpret novels and the past as pretty images – as a single aesthetic that is repeated over and over again, cementing a certain idea of what a ‘period look’ implies and stands for. What I liked about Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights is that she recognises this history of ‘prettifying’ Wuthering Heights into a ‘period look’, and completely demolishes it in her own interpretation.
The book is quite brutal, even by today’s standards. We have dogs being hanged, women being abused, a character like Catherine starving herself to death (while pregnant). It’s not pretty stuff. And Arnold acknowledges this. There is a strong visceral and sensual element to her imagery and to the way that she chooses to film (moving away from sweeping period shots to more intimate, claustrophobic and jarring close-ups, hand-held cameras and lighting). In many ways, this reminded me of Jane Campion’s films, particularly Bright Star, in its ability to convey a different level of screen representation of the past and of literary words through imagery that speaks to the senses, rather than to a narrow frame of a period aesthetic. But Campion takes things further, and I don’t think Arnold does. Which leads me to the next point.
What I didn’t like ...
For all its harsh imagery, for all its lack of pretty romanticism, Arnold’s Wuthering Heights doesn’t say much. It’s hard to explain what I mean by that without an example, so I’ll give you one. For the first time, Heathcliff’s unknown origins and racial identity in the book are addressed on screen by a filmmaker. Although it’s not made clear whether Heathcliff is of a different race in the novel (he’s called a gypsy often, amongst other names, but ‘gypsy’ was also a general insult in the nineteenth century), there have been countless debates about his relationship to things like the Liverpool slave trade, Britain’s colonial past and the British Empire, and so on.
Arnold makes a significant decision in this version of Wuthering Heights by choosing to make Heathcliff black, bringing the issue of his race to the forefront. But strangely enough, I didn’t feel this was taken anywhere. The overriding concern of the film seems to be its texture and sensuality, its brutal style and harsh landscape. The bigger contextual and historical issues around Heathcliff’s race were hinted at through momentary racial insults, but there wasn’t much beyond that, and it seemed a bit superficial. I was expecting more; if a filmmaker is going to make such a great leap forward in the representation of such an iconic character, who has mostly been pictured as a conventional romantic (and white) hero, why not explore the potential of such a move more deliberately, why not actually contextualise it?
The other thing that bothered me about this version of Wuthering Heights is that it’s actually quite conventional from another perspective. Throughout the many years the novel has been adapted on screen, it has firmly been ‘rewritten’ as Heathcliff’s story, and Arnold’s interpretation is no different. I sat back in the theatre and felt increasingly annoyed about this. Why are we so reluctant to allow female characters to become heroines too? Why do filmmakers consistently ignore the many dominant storylines and themes in the novel exploring Catherine’s identity, exploring her daughter’s identity and exploring the role of women?
I was actually reminded of a modernised adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), remade as Cruel Intentions. While this modern version is only too happy to bring the issue of race into the storyline, it keeps women in their place as secondary, less interesting characters. If we’re going to ‘update’ a classic novel, why not go all the way? Are we still so reluctant to actually view women as owning an identity and a subjectivity independent of others, and of men? Filmmakers seem only too happy to use female characters as muses, as avenues to explore more ‘significant’ male subjectivities, but exploring a woman’s own existential drama? Well, that’s still unthinkable, even in a bold and innovative film such as Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.
So, what did you think of the film? I am very, very curious to hear other opinions.
Image credit: Catherine (Shannon Beer) and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), from Wuthering Heights (2011), directed by Andrea Arnold, Ecosse Films/Screen Yorkshire/Film4/The UK Film Council. Image courtesy of Luna Palace Cinemas.