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Wuthering Heights? A New Low, Perhaps…

July 16, 2012

You’d think I’d learn, really. Even though Emily Bronte’s cherished novel Wuthering Heights has been adapted for film and TV several times, for lovers of the novel, they all come up remarkably and disappointingly short. So why I expected Andrea Arnold’s adaptation to be any different, I really don’t know. Something about it got me excited though, so I bought it the first time I saw it without even a second thought.

The trouble with this kind of film, inevitably, is that the kind of people who will watch it are the kind of people who love the novel and already know the story. There’s no fooling them with artistic license – they take it as a betrayal of the original rather than a new and refreshing interpretation. I’m no exception to this rule – Wuthering Heights remains to this day my favourite novel of all time and having squished it into as many essays as I could while at uni, I can quote passages from memory. However, while the title of my review here is pretty damning, I wasn’t WHOLLY unimpressed with this latest adaptation.

The image above alone is a very good reason to be impressed by this film. Arnold’s casting of two young black actors – James Howson and Solomon Glave (old and young Heathcliff respectively) is a controversial but inspired choice that lends her adaptation a real authenticity in relation to the original text that other adaptations, through their insistent casting of Heathcliff as white, fail to evoke. Personally, I always thought that given the historical context and Mr. Earnshaw finding Heathcliff in the streets of Liverpool, at the time a thriving port with a vibrant Irish community, that Heathcliff was quite clearly Romany or Irish gypsy. There is a lot of academic fuel to support this, but I can accept that Arnold’s casting is a valid alternative interpretation of Heathcliff’s ethnicity. It certainly works with the way he is treated, the way characters speak of him and the way he is described.

The film depicts the early part of the novel with a startling loyalty. Never before have I seen so many of the finer points laboured over so carefully; in previous adaptations minor characters like Frances, Hindley’s wife, have been virtually ignored and I daresay would have been written out if it weren’t for the importance of Hareton’s presence in the second half of the production. The events of the early part of the novel are depicted flawlessly, with minimal artistic license and quite a stark, matter of fact attitude to life and death. Arnold draws attention to very intimate details, such as the way Heathcliff’s hand lies on Catherine’s hip while he rides behind her on a horse, or the way her hair lashes in his face, that really emphasises the sexual undertone of their relationship that persists throughout the novel. Whether this was the right move or not, I can’t say. I didn’t dislike it, but it gave the production a tone that I don’t quite agree with. In the novel, Bronte never overtly sexualises the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff – their love and their devotion to one another cannot be denied, but it is never a romantic or sexual bond between them, it is something much more. To highlight the sexual as Arnold does in this adaptation is to somehow diminish the power of what Bronte’s characters shared and while I appreciate how difficult it must be to depict such a fierce passion without involving sexuality, I don’t agree with it’s inclusion.

And, I’m afraid, that’s where my admiration of this production ends. As the film progresses, its resemblance to the original text grows weaker and weaker. Given the opportunity to REALLY play her, I daresay that Kaya Scodelario (Effie from Skins) would have made a fantastic Catherine Earnshaw. She has just the right look about her, the right impression of suppressed but untamed wildness… she’s perfect. But, in the weakness of the latter part of this adaptation, she just does not shine. The younger Catherine’s fiestiness is nowhere to be seen in Scodelario’s depiction of the lead role and some of the most powerful scenes shared between Catherine and Heathcliff after their reunion are skimmed over or ignored completely. Arnold departs completely from the plot after Catherine’s death when Heathcliff digs up her grave almost as soon as she is buried – such iconic scenes have to be depicted, of course, but in the right place in the narrative is best. And that isn’t even the worst of it. The film ends what would be halfway through the novel – fictional years before Bronte’s Heathcliff actually dug up the grave of his love and lay with her in her coffin. The young Cathy Linton, Linton Heathcliff, Hareton and the rest, they never even get a look in. The entire second half is simply omitted, forgotten. I can’t be the only person that this horrified, and that is my biggest problem with this film. It’s one thing to pay such careful attention at first, but when it is only to make such a flagrant departure from the plot is, for lovers of the book, completely unforgivable.

Andrea Arnold had a good stab at adapting Emily Bronte’s timeless and cherished novel, but I get the impression that her desire to do something arty with it got the better of her and compelled her to ruin her chances of doing what others failed to do – impress those who love Wuthering Heights.

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