Last week, I have the privilege of catching a sneak preview of Andrea Arnold’s latest film – her adaptation of the Emily Brontë classic Wuthering Heights at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Equally exciting was the opportunity to participate in the Q&A session that followed the screening, with the director herself live and in person.
Alas, I did not have a particular question to ask Ms. Arnold; but I did have a lot to think about, as I was still processing what I just saw on screen.
Having been a fan of her work and having seen two of her previous directorial outings (Red Road, Fish Tank) I knew that this film would not provide a stock, straightforward adaptation of the source material. Over the years, Arnold’s films have stood out in my mind for their depiction of an unflinching world in which her characters live and are often fighting against.
* Since this is a classic and must read for many a school-aged child, I will not drag on about the plot but will, instead, direct you to a fine synopsis of the novel here.
Going into the film, I also had a little bit of a background understanding of some of the artistic embellishments added to the film, most notably in the casting of young, Black British men in the role of Heathcliff as a youth and as an adult. For some this was a controversial choice – for me, it was not that much of a stretch – in fact, I thought it allowed a contemporary audience to experience the treatment gypsy (as Heathcliff is in the novel) would have experience at the hands of people who lived in rural 19th century England. It especially gave his treatment at the hands of Hindley that much more weight. Although in our screening at least one viewer took exception to the “obvious” – his words not mine – characterization of Hindley as a skinhead. Ms. Arnold’s humorous retort was one that accepted this fact and swiftly moved on from it. And so shall I.
As for the film itself, very much like in the book, the external environment plays a vital role in telling the story the tragic lovers. However I must say in this version, the moors have a decidedly cold, remote feel to them. I would liken the coldness I felt here to my experience watching Jane Eyre last year. That said, the cinematography is quite good in capturing the landscape, even if at moments the use of the hand-held camera proved a little trying on my weary eyes.
As for the ever-important portrayals of Cathy and Heathcliff, I think that the performances of the younger pair (Shannon Beer and Solomon Glave) really rose to the occasion and worked better (for me) than of the actors who played the tragic couple as adults (Kaya Scodelario and James Howson).
Like many adaptations of Wuthering Heights, the story focuses on the central Cathy and Heathcliff relationship (this time the story is specifically viewed from Heathcliff’s perspective – as was Arnold’s stated intention) and cleaves the entire second half of novel, which is fine by me, since I felt the book was a bit of a letdown once Cathy’s fate is sealed.
One final thing that I am still undecided on is the ending … in particular the music that leads us into the final credits. Normally this is not something I pay too particular attention to, but in this case the music choice stands out in that it is most decidedly anachronistic (* if any of you have seen the film let me know what you think in the comments section below).
Wuthering Heights opens October 5th at the Film Forum in NYC. Followed by a wider release on October 12 in select cities nationwide.
That’s cool to see a non-white actor playing a classic role. That’s interesting to see, I bet that was super controversial. I mean people were up in arms when Idris Elba was cast in a normally White COMIC character in Thor, ahah. I might rent this when this comes out, though I still need to see the Ralph Fiennes version at some point.
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I think it caused a little of a stir but really – it is not that far from belief to think of a Romany of that day being on par with people of African descent in terms of how they are treated.