There are as many interpretations of Wuthering Heights’ story, subtext and symbolism as there are reworkings of it in films, stage adaptations, 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 costume drama, nor the land we have come to picture through the Romantics’ depictions of the Lake District; here is no travel-brochure-green dotted by bright daffodils, no place for "emotions recollected in tranquillity".
Arnold’s lands are made of mud, dried heather and dead leaves; they are literally wuthering landscapes pelted by rain, submerged into blinding fogs, crumbled onto restless rocks. The colour palette is all browns and dirty greens, occasionally splashed with the tint of rancid milk. Everything in this world is turmoil and tumult - the earth friable and unsteady, the sky ready to rip open and crumble. It’s a world stuck in perpetual late winter, where the coming of spring is only a brief, delusional dream. Probably a true picture of Yorkshire in cold, dreary January.
But of course straightforward realism is not the key. These badlands are charged with something that exceeds geographical accuracy, something that’s not mere filmic symbolism but rather supernatural significance, a dread pathetic fallacy. 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. The place is possessed with a portentous memory reminiscent of Tarkovsky's rural locations, a parchment torched with past abuse and trauma upon which people lash out at each other - close-up on the flaming hot cheeks of a boy slapped hard, a girl picking and licking his scabby scars to soothe his pain. Violence returns unquenched by time and education, unwieldy passion seeks and destroys: the past spills out into the present and incessantly they tread on to the future, repeating the cycles of personal and societal violence.
In Arnold’s version Heathcliff is explicitly made black - black of heart and black of skin. Although I must confess I have never seen this casting done before (actors who have played Heathcliff on film include: Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes and Cliff Richard), the idea that Heathcliff may be black is not particularly new: Emily Brontë's description of Heathcliff is as a "dark-skinned gipsy in aspect and a little lascar", and literary criticism has been pondering the origins and identity of Heathcliff for a long time - Irish foundling? Abandoned Roma baby? Abducted slave? What is striking is that despite this casting choice, simplistic 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; presented as factual truth it requires no further commentary. This is England, too.
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 her Wuthering Heights is social realism masked as period drama. Thus thisWuthering Heights’ 19th century England speaks of our 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 today. 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, abused and abuser, victim and perpetrator bound together - is the voice of those rioters who set England ablaze in the summer of 2011 (when the film was originally released) and more recently erupted with Brexit-induced xenophobia. It’s the voice of 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 blossoming body speaks a language both mysterious and compelling. Desire. Sex. Rage. The compulsion of violence pervades humans and nature alike: the wind whips the barren moors as much as women’s hair and men’s coats; innocent animals die senselessly and get savagely killed without pity. It’s a world out of a Ted Hughes poem: raw, brutal and harsh, where men and women slash at each other and are haunted by ghosts of the loves they have abused.
Five years on from its release, Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a perfect alternative to the class platitudes offered by Downton Abbey. I dream of seeing it in a state-of-the-nation triple bill with Shane Meadows’ This is England and Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant - together with Arnold they are the three most important filmmakers of twenty-first century Britain, true heirs to the spirit of Ken Loach and Lindsay Anderson.
[Irene Musumeci, Curzon Head Office]
Andrea Arnold’s new film American Honey is playing at Curzon Cinemas from Friday 14 October.