I’ve never read Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights; so if you were hoping for an informed perspective, you should click on to the next thing. (I refuse to feel bad – I’m watching At the Movies right now and Margaret is admitting she’s not qualified to review Ted because she’s never seen Family Guy.) But in assessing Emily Arnold’s feature-film adaptation, I’m not sure it matters whether I’ve read it or not. I’m not even sure it would matter whether Arnold had ever read it. Her film approaches adaptation as an extreme sport. The story’s themes, characters and plot are present in what is presumably a recognizable shape, like points on a constellation, but otherwise complete liberty is taken. Perhaps this is expected these days; Shakespeare is adapted so freely on both stage and screen in contemporary times that we’re actually surprised by more traditional interpretations. But Hollywood and BBC costume dramas based on classic novels follow such a standard form that I guess there’s still a bit of shock left to mine from re-interpretation with contemporary aesthetics and values. Either that, or Arnold is particularly good at ruffling middlebrow feathers, because her version of Wuthering Heights has been called controversial, difficult and dark. It’s certainly dark, I’ll give you that. I liked it quite a lot.
Brontë’s 1847 novel is known for its bleakness and strangeness anyway, and was already controversial upon publication. Clearly Arnold felt she had to get even weirder in order to register the same impact. In her hands, the tale has become something beyond Gothic – primal, elemental, brutal. Whether life on the Yorkshire moors of the 19th century was as grim and downright Medieval as it’s depicted here is up for discussion. But there’s almost no doubt we’ve been kidding ourselves with our sanitized versions of Dickens and Austen; life in northern Europe at any time, and for any class of people, before the inventions of indoor plumbing and electric light would have probably seemed pretty grimy and, well, dark to us. So this film exaggerates (maybe) to make a point. Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which I love) leans a bit in this direction, with dark interiors, a tomboyish and messy-haired Elizabeth, and gaggles of farm animals running around the periphery of the rather scruffy Mr Bennett’s country house. Arnold’s film makes that one look very tame.
I saw Wuthering Heights late one rainy Friday night towards the end of Sydney Film Festival. I was alone, tired and in a bad mood. I sat in the front row of the State Theatre, which never seemed so cavernous and absurdly ornate. It was the perfect way to absorb, or rather to be absorbed in, the film’s chilly, haunted atmosphere. It’s not only the way Arnold and cinematographer Robbie Ryan create such an evocative world onscreen – an unearthly place where the wind always blows, where the distant sunlight glints off the raindrops and pale purple heather and hardly warms the wood and brick dwellings. It’s the way they make that world seem so real and tangible (and achingly beautiful) – with softly focused closeups of rough-hewn wood, rough fabric, dirty hands, flowers, birds and animals, warped glass refracting external forms like ghosts.
The characters seem like ghosts inhabiting this place. They’re not always in focus; we don’t always understand what they’re saying. They nearly always seem to be cold and wet (even indoors) and unhappy. Two of the young ones, a young lady named Catherine and Heathcliff, a foster child who is treated like a servant, develop an animal affection for one another that blossoms into love. They steal a little time in between harsh, gutteral reprimands from Catherine’s stern male relatives to explore the delicate, primordial miracle of their feelings, before everything falls apart and everyone dies or goes home miserable.
Sure, Heathcliff’s black. Sure, the young Catherine dresses like a neurotic art student, with trousers under her skirts and a beat-up cardigan. Sure, her brother has a shaved head, and he and Heathcliff talk to each other like yobs from contemporary Liverpool. But it’s not that Arnold is just casually asking “Why not?” She doesn’t seem to be playing around with the iconography of the novel for a good laugh; her commitment to its creepy, doomed Romanticism is total. More than any recent literary adaptation, its anachronisms force us to ponder the set of aesthetic or cultural signs that define “history”, or what distances us from the past. Other than the odd electric cable and a few plastic microchips, what separates our world from the bleak, lonely world in which Emily Brontë lived and wrote anyway? Didn’t we simply inherit its cruelty, its racism and its messed-up notions of love? Maybe it’s time we stop kidding ourselves?
Anyway, I got pretty wrapped up in Arnold’s vision, though there are weak spots. The largely unknown leads inhabit their roles with conviction, but the acting falters in the crucial later scenes. And I admit the grottiness goes overboard – the scene in which a playful romp in the rain between Heathcliff and Catherine devolves into a mudwrestling bout is a bit too precious; the scene where she licks his wounds (after he’s beaten with a whip) too indie-grimy. But it never lost me completely; and the film’s excesses seem perfectly in line with the spirit of 19th-century Romanticism, which was pretty freaky in the first place (think Edgar Allan Poe, incest, necrophilia, premature burials, etc.) About the worst to be said of the film is that the characters are often swallowed up in the blurry, almost Expressionist atmosphere. But with atmosphere this good, I’m not sure that’s a knock. Certainly it’s destined to be a slumber-party classic among lonely Goth-minded youngsters for years to come, and I mean that as high praise.
Anyway, I’ll probably read the novel soon.