Wuthering Heights – the classic novel by Emily Brontё, published in 1848 – was first filmed by William Wyler in the sunny hills of California nearly a century later. The French-born actress, Juliet Binoche, starred in a 1992 remake. There have been several TV adaptations, and non-English versions from Luis Bunuel and Jacques Rivette.
However, Wuthering Heights has not moved from page to screen as readily as the novels of Jane Austen, or Charlotte Brontё’s Jane Eyre. Firstly there is Emily Brontё’s highly complex, ironic narrative style; secondly, the bleak, wild setting and conflicted characters. The love story of Cathy and Heathcliff is a doomed one, without a happy ending.
Andrea Arnold is the British director of two feature films – Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), both awarded the Jury Prize at Cannes – as well as an Oscar-winning short, Wasp (2005.)
Wuthering Heights (2011) was filmed on the Yorkshire moors, using a hand-held camera. Several of the cast – including James Howson, who plays the older Heathcliff – are non-professionals.
Much of the press coverage has focused on the casting of a black actor as Heathcliff. This is not merely an attempt to court controversy, but a result of Arnold’s search for authenticity.
Heathcliff’s true origins are never revealed, but his appearance clearly sets him apart when he arrives in a remote, rural community. Arnold shows the young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) fleeing in terror when his new family try to baptise him.
His bond with Catherine Earnshaw is forged in childhood. They are siblings in spirit, if not in blood, and spend hours on the moors in feral, yet innocent play. The young Cathy, played with vigour by Shannon Beer, is indeed ‘a wild, wick slip’ of a girl.
However, Cathy’s brother Hindley (Lee Shaw) despises Heathcliff. When their father dies, Hindley becomes head of the household. He treats Heathcliff as a slave, and calls him ‘nigger’. After a savage beating, Cathy licks the blood from Heathcliff’s back.
Wuthering Heights is a working farm, staffed by a sadistic religious zealot, Joseph (Steve Evets) and the level-headed, conciliatory housekeeper, Nelly Dean (Simone Jackson.) When Cathy and Heathcliff wander into the more genteel setting of Thrushcross Grange, the seeds of rupture are sown.
Cathy falls under the spell of the Lintons, and drifts apart from wretched, brutalised Heathcliff. When he hears her tell Nelly that ‘it would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now’, he run away. Cathy’s declaration of love – ‘he’s more myself than I am’ – goes unheard.
On his return, Heathcliff finds Cathy married to Edgar Linton, and living at Thrushcross Grange. The older Cathy is played by Kaya Scodelario (best known as Effy in the TV series, Skins.) Cathy’s increasing fragility is made painfully clear. Heathcliff’s jealousy drives her to madness, while his thirst for revenge engulfs him.
As he loses Cathy, Heathcliff gains Wuthering Heights from Hindley, brought low by drink and gambling debts. Arnold does not cover the latter part of the novel, which sees Heathcliff enacting his vendetta on the next generation.
However, the future portents – the rapping at the window, the haunting of Cathy’s grave – are all present within the film’s imagery. There is no soundtrack, but for the howling wind, traditional folk songs performed unaccompanied, and a closing track, ‘The Enemy’, from Mumford and Sons.
While some might find the film’s raw quality unpalatable, a radical retelling of Wuthering Heights is long overdue, and Andrea Arnold’s work here is surely worthy of Emily Brontё’s uncompromising vision.
All photos by Agatha Nitecka
Wuthering Heights is currently showing at selected cinemas and will be released on DVD in March 2012
Interview with Andrea Arnold
Interview with James Howson