Andrea Arnold’s version of Wuthering Heights is another one of my top films of 2011. I wrote about it here.
Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)
Where to begin? It never gets old. There are as many interpretations of Wuthering Heights’ story, subtext and symbolism as there are retellings of it - movies, plays, poems, novels, paintings, biographical studies, literary analyses.
In Andrea Arnold’s version the focus is on the setting: this is England. Not the pastoral country of sanitised TV costume drama, nor the land we have come to picture through Romantic words - here is no Lake-District-travel-brochure-green dotted by bright daffodils, no place for ”emotions recollected in tranquillity”. These lands are moulded in mud and musk, dried leaves, pelting rain, blinding fogs, wind-swept heather, restless rocks. The colour palette is all brown and dirty green, occasionally splashed with the tint of rancid milk. Everything here is turmoil and tumult - the earth friable and unsteady, the sky ready to open and fall down. It’s a world in perpetual late winter, where the coming of spring is only a brief dream. Anyone who has visited Yorkshire in late January can vouch for the truthfulness of this vision.
But of course straightforward realism is not the key. The landscape is charged with something that exceeds geographical accuracy, something that’s not mere filmic symbolism but rather supernatural significance. In this sense, Arnold’s film is much more faithful to the late Romantic imagination than previous versions, but the effect of such construction of landscape is far from sublime, more repulsive. The place is possessed with a portentous Tarkovskian memory, a parchment torched with past abuse and trauma - the flaming hot cheeks of a boy slapped hard, the scabby scars a girl picks and licks to soothe him. Just as violence returns unquenched by time and education, unwieldy passion seeks and destroys.
Heathcliff is black - black of heart and black of skin. Although I must confess I have never seen it done before, this is not a particularly new idea: literary criticism has been pondering the provenance and identity of Heathcliff for years now - Irish foundling? Abandoned gypsy baby? Abducted slave? What is striking is that despite this casting choice, the obvious moral meditations about race and racism that would follow do not cross the threshold of this world. Heathcliff’s treatment at the hands of piggish, racist Hindley is cringe-worthy and horrible, but fortunately Arnold feels no need to hammer the point home.
However, just as Arnold’s films are never generically straightforward, they’re also not politically naive: Fish Tank was a terrific exercise in disguising dystopian fiction as social realism, and Wuthering Heights is social realism masked as period drama. Thus Wuthering Heights' England speaks of today's England, quite literally by speaking the same language of “cunts” and “fucks” and “bastards” and “okays” heard all over England’s green and pleasant land. The effect of twenty-first century speech delivered in breeches and corsets is at the same time disruptive and utterly beguiling, and it carries Arnold’s political statement: Heathcliff’s voice - just as much as Hindley’s - is the voice of those rioters who set England ablaze earlier this summer - a class despised by the elite, neglected, and abused, for whom violence becomes the only language.
But, importantly, the politics don’t get in the way of the heart of the story. As much as Fish Tank, Wuthering Heights burns with the fire and brimstone of teen-age: a time of incomprehension and confusion, ruled by the inability to read the signs of adulthood, while the body speaks a language mysterious and compelling. Desire. Sex. Rage.
The compulsion of violence pervades humans and nature alike: the wind lashes the moors as much as women’s hair and men’s coats; innocent animals die senselessly and get murdered without pity. And yet this raw, brutal, harsh world, is not without poetry; only it’s more Ted Hughes than Wordsworth - both Northern men, one tragic and the other solemn.
My only criticism is that Arnold also seems to suffer from the latest ailment of contemporary directors: the inability to end the film when it should. A good twenty minutes of the central section could have been compressed into five, and the closing three minutes - where, alas, a tinny Mumford & Sons tune bursts in - have a crass, disruptive effect, particularly after an impressive and rigorous approach to soundtrack restricted the use of extradiegetic music to zilch. I hated the ending, and I am sorry for it: it sent up an extraordinary film with a cheap shot. But I am ready to forget it happened.
Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” was shot in Essex and several boroughs outside of London (IMDb lists Barking, Havering and Tower Hamlets among them) and these landscapes — variously industrial, suburban, undeveloped — look as chilly and otherworldly as anything in Antonioni. Only shabbier. It took me all year to get around to seeing “Fish Tank,” but as an admirer of Arnold’s nightmarish 2006 “Red Road,” I’m not terribly surprised to discover that it’s one of the most vividlydirected US releases of the year. And I say that even though it consists almost entirely of hand-held camerawork (which is not a style I generally appreciate). Through Arnold’s lens, this slice of soggy Britain takes on the surreal look of a dream, or science fiction.
Warning: of course the post contains spoilers, so you might want to watch the film before clicking through. It’s a really interesting and surprising piece of work, particularly if you get into it expecting a straightforward social realist drama about “daddy issues” (which it ain’t - think more Ratcatcher than Ken Loach), and I wholeheartedly recommend it.