Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights

Friday, 19 October 2012

Wuthering Heights

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.


Alison Croggon said...

I was very excited to see this, and was very disappointed. Totally agree that in the end it pulled its punches on the violence: the book is much harsher and bleaker. And yes, agree on the racial and gender questions too. I thought it curiously passionless: maybe because it was so keen to avoid the melodrama, it avoided the passion almost completely. The scenes between the younger actors an exception on this: I loved seeing Cathy as a Yorkshire lass. More than anything, why so flatten out this story?

Hila said...

Alison: I was disappointed in many ways too. She's obviously a good filmmaker, she could have taken this story much further. And I completely agree with you: the book is much bleaker, harsher and more passionate. To me that's tied to Brontë actually engaging with her world through her characters, whereas this film doesn't engage with much and seems more concerned with style. This style is unique amongst other Wuthering Heights adaptations, but it's still a style that needs some sort of context to make it interesting and meaningful.

I thought though that exploring Catherine as a Yorkshire lass and as a young girl was a pretty smart move - I wish this was taken further too.

Looking Glass said...

I am so excited to happen upon this post today whilst near the end of re-reading Wuthering Heights myself this moment! Perfect timing. I have not seen this film adaptation but find your points extremely interesting and will now endeavour to watch it.

~ Clare x

helen tilston said...

Hello Hila

I am glad I have visited you today. I recently re-read Wuthering Heights and found it quite depressing.
This is an interesting take on Heathcliff being black.
I will watch for the film

Thanks for visiting and your comment.
I am your newest follower and have placed you on my blog roll


Gabriela said...

I saw the film recently after a long anticipation - I was thrilled about Heathcliff being black and about Catherine being played by Kaya Scodelario who seems so talented - and I was kind of disappointed. Though I haven't read the book in its entirety yet (shame on me, I know), so I can't compare it to how the story was treated on screen, it seemed to me that there was way too much Heathcliff. Catherine seemed so interesting and yet she was somewhat always a bit underemployed throughout the movie. To me, the composition of the film seemed a bit off, too - especially the two time levels of the story, they didn't work together so well.

Karolina said...

I saw the film in the cinema back in April or May with my fellow Eng Lit students. I was disapointed as well. As you have mentioned above, the style dominated the film. I found it quite pretensional, as if the makers thought "Oh, we're making a beautiful, brave film, a new take on the classic, so we don't have to focus on the story."
I think the movie had wasted potential. There was violence, but no passion. The acting was mediocre. We went out of the cinema really tired - and they've managed to tell merely the half of the story! I think that they've wasted too much time on redundant scenes and details, like copulating insects and close-ups, but not on the story and character evolvement. There was too much blood (killing rabbits, etc.), but too little feeling.

Maria said...

interesting. i like reading your thoughts on this. i didn't even know this existed and now i'm intrigued. wuthering heights was my favorite of the books we read in high school and now i want to re-read it. looking forward to seeing this hopefully soon now! :)

louise said...

I'm so impressed you were able to hop up from the viewing of such a film and skip to discussion mode. Impressive stuff. As too is your thinking. You've certainly got my mind ticking. My first impression of the film was that it was dark, textural, and moving. As a nature buff, I revelled in the closeups of the landscape viewed large on the ACMI screen. The sound of the howling, roaring wind was incredible and it was a good end to 50 films seen in 17 days. After the film ended, I wanted the festival to continue. For me, I cannot see the film as anything other than linked to my festival experience. It also made me want to cuddle my pets and check they were okay. xolj

nancy said...

I enjoy your reviews! It sounds like a difficult film to watch, but one I'm nonetheless interested in seeing.
I commend you for your ability to review the film! I think I would find it difficult to objectively review a revised version of a story that I've had so much previous experience with. Well done! And well-written, as always :)

Rambling Tart said...

I haven't seen the movie yet so I can't give my opinion, but I'm so happy to hear that the filmmaker created a film that looks real rather than glossy. I love that. I enjoyed Bright Star so much, in huge part because of the filming. :-) I often wonder if current cultural issues override the legitimate ones of the novel when they are made into movies? It seems that often they pick out an obscure issue that resonates today, rather than the REAL issue that dominated the book AND resonates today. I can't wait for someone to make novels into movies with the themes and issues intact. If that is possible. :-)

Hila said...

Clare: Ah yes, good timing!

Helen: Thank you Helen! I don't find Wuthering Heights depressing - it is a very bleak book, but there's an energy to it that's compelling.

Gabriela: Yes, that was a huge problem for me with this film. Everything was told from Heathcliff's perspective (the camera angles were shot from his perspective too), it was essentially his story. I'll never understand why filmmakers choose to ignore Catherine and her own story - why it's perfectly okay to make a masculine lead the 'hero', but to never allow the female lead to likewise dominate and explore her own identity. Are women undeserving of their own stories? It seems ridiculous to me that in our modern age, filmmakers won't even go there - especially a female director like Andrea Arnold. She really disappointed me, and I also found a lot of the film superficial (if beautiful).

Karolina: Your analysis is spot on, I completely agree. "Oh, we're making a beautiful, brave film, a new take on the classic, so we don't have to focus on the story", yep! For me it was too much style, too little substance, and as you said, quite pretentious in some ways.

Maria: I hope you get to see it and decide for yourself.

Louise: You could wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to talk about Wuthering Heights :) I can understand how you related to the film, and from a stylistic perspective, it is impressive. But I wanted more, it felt lacking for me.

Nancy: Thank you!

Krista: of course, a filmmaker's own times are reflected in a film. But I felt Arnold didn't even comment on the present (let alone the past) - there wasn't really a story as such, or much of an engagement with the main issue she deliberately sought to highlight, but did nothing with: race.

ailsa said...

i saw this at ACMI too - well, i saw two thirds of it as i got up and left before the end. i've never walked out of a film screening before.
i hated this film. it was complete and total pretension and had zero storyline. i had no idea what was going on and wished they would just focus on one detail for more than 1.5 seconds. all the handheld camera made me feel ill and i had absolutely no emotional involvement in any of the characters. this was just filmmakers patting themselves on the back for being sooooo groundbreaking and clever.

Hila said...

Alisa: I thought it was pretentious too. It's a shame, because it had much potential to be better than this.