Heathcliff 2.0: Andrea Arnold’s 'Wuthering Heights'

Halfway into Andrea Arnold’s film Wuthering Heights, I saw the ghost of Laurence Olivier. It wasn’t Olivier playing Heathcliff in the well-known 1939 adaptation who appeared, though. It was Olivier as the jealous Moor in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” My hallucination was made possible by the black makeup Olivier wore from head to toe in the 1965 film version of that tragedy and by Arnold’s decision as the director to depict Heathcliff as black.

The foundling whom Mr. Earnshaw brings to Yorkshire from Liverpool is not merely dark-skinned or swarthy. He is of a different race, though we never learn his exact origin (Afro-Caribbean? North African, like Othello?). Assuming this is not a case of race-blind casting, and bracketing the question of whether a black Heathcliff is anachronistic, what should we make of Arnold’s visceral interpretation of Emily Brontë’s canonical novel?

Expectations for this new film are high given the affecting realism of Arnold’s last feature, “Fish Tank,” a brilliant study of a 15-year-old girl in a contemporary English housing project. (Arnold also won an Oscar in 2003 for the short film “Wasp.”) She has cited the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky as an influence, and the linkage is not far-fetched. Thanks in part to Robbie Ryan’s lush cinematography, “Wuthering Heights” also puts the director in the company of Terrence Malick, another great filmmaker.

Clearly Arnold aims to upend preconceptions and unsettle viewers. This is no Gothic romance or genteel period potboiler. She and her co-writer, Olivia Hetreed, strip away all literary artifice. The movie contains minimal dialogue, and the plot has been drastically pared. There are neither contextual aids nor a musical score to amplify the mise-en-scène. Intense and imagistic, sensual and rather salacious, this is a wild, fascinatingly bleak adaptation that seizes on the book’s more lurid motifs.

Casting black actors as Heathcliff (Solomon Glave and James Howson) highlights his status as the “ultimate outsider,” as Arnold accurately describes Brontë’s protagonist in the press notes. Put differently, Heathcliff’s skin color and ethnicity underscore his otherness. He is isolated from the outset, and the movie’s suffocating aura and claustrophobic dampness are symptoms of his alienation.

Judging by the scars on young Heathcliff’s back, he has likely been enslaved, and he does not escape physical and verbal abuse in his new situation. He is called a “nigger” by Hindley Earnshaw, and Mr. Linton threatens to hang him. In one sequence, the Earnshaw’s manservant Joseph whips him.

Arnold’s decision to adopt Heathcliff’s point of view is also key. It enables his “monomania” (Brontë’s term) regarding Catherine (Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario) to be all-consuming, to such an extent that Cathy comes off as either the object of his obsession—his prey—or a fickle tease. It doesn’t mean we are privy to Heathcliff’s thoughts or gain psychological insight into his character, however. His relationship with Cathy has overwhelmingly carnal overtones from the moment he arrives at the Earnshaw farmhouse, a rustic hovel.

In a pivotal scene of Arnold’s invention, Heathcliff watches Hindley and his new wife make love in a field, surrounded by yelping dogs. Later, when Cathy and Heathcliff are playing near a bog, he pins her down and appears ready to mimic Hindley’s coarse lovemaking technique. He does not, and the vignette suggests their relationship will never be consummated and that Heathcliff’s sexual frustration is all that drives him. In effect, he becomes a feral stalker.

The movie’s earthy, sanguine tang is further intensified by the prevalence of blood, usually but not exclusively connected to mundane barnyard rituals. After Joseph thrashes Heathcliff, Cathy licks his wounds, literally tasting his blood. This happens right before a dog ravages Cathy’s ankle as she and Heathcliff are caught peering into the Linton home. She recuperates in that more civilized household and eventually marries Edgar Linton.

To remove any doubt about the corporeal basis of the bond between Heathcliff and Cathy, Arnold has him very nearly commit necrophilia atop her funeral bier. Unable to possess Cathy bodily or spiritually, and incapable of sublimating his thwarted desire, Heathcliff soon expires.

Giving Race a Role

A viewer’s initial reaction to Arnold’s interpretation is likely to be: how literal and perverse! Not only does she traffic in a racial stereotype; her Freudian slant is passé! That everything is rendered so skillfully from a technical perspective does not erase these misgivings. Ryan’s gorgeous photography, with its burlap-and-gray palette, paints the Yorkshire locale as a beautifully harsh backdrop. Yet transfixing visuals with gliding birds, flitting moths and butterflies and floating feathers can only communicate so much; likewise, the many images of crawling insects, moss-encrusted twigs, swaying tree branches and rustling leaves. We understand that Heathcliff and Cathy briefly found sanctuary within the forbidding landscape.

Unless Arnold is asserting that Heathcliff’s fate is wholly determined by his race—not an especially compelling or radical thesis—the most interesting thing is how her take functions as a foil to the viewer’s own tendency to confine Heathcliff to a purely animal stratum of existence.

One particular image, a quick cut to a scampering beetle, brought this home to me. Reading the beetle as symbolic of Heathcliff’s plight is too easy, so obvious it must be a trap. Equating him with a bug waiting to be squashed, put out of its misery, opens the door to pure nihilism. Of course that may be where Arnold wants to lead us. She omits anything approximating catharsis or clarification, after all. But since a white Heathcliff could serve the same purpose, what Arnold actually achieves is an interpretive inversion, in which the viewer’s critical responses and aesthetic judgments are turned inside out.

Given scant indication that Heathcliff lives on anything but a materialistic plane, we are forced to examine the possibility that there is no emotional, spiritual or intellectual basis for his love for Cathy. We then must accept or reject the idea that a black Heathcliff is synonymous with the darkest, most primitive human instincts. In doing so, our own latent assumptions and prejudices are ex-posed.

The ghost of Olivier’s Othello, for example, was in my head, not on the screen. That beetle foraging deep inside the gorse and heather on the moors is more my bogeyman than Heathcliff’s, or Arnold’s.

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