Thursday 10 November 2011

Cathy come home: "Wuthering Heights"

To the formidable menagerie already laid out in the filmmaker Andrea Arnold's shorts Dog and Wasp, and the 2009 feature Fish Tank, her new, radical version of Wuthering Heights adds many more canines, a brace of pheasants, a carthorse, a plucked goose, a yellow canary, a full complement of butterflies, beetles and bugs, and a pair of lapwings whose skylarking comes to rhyme with that of Heathcliff, a former slave whom the so-called civilised world would rather see sleep with such animals (if not with the fishes), and Cathy, a girl prepared to lick the blood from her contemporary's wounds, yet has hopes and aspirations for herself beyond living out her days in a stone shack on a rainy Yorkshire hillside. This surfeit of all things natural - and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, working overtime to package the above into the cramped confines of a 4:3 Academy ratio frame, really does appear to be auditioning for the next series of Autumnwatch - is central to Arnold's decidedly elemental conception of the Emily Brontë novel. This Heights is never happier than when it's out on the moors, liberated from the constraints of polite society with its polite costume dramas, able to look at or touch whatever the hell it wants. It's a free adaptation, in more ways than one.

With the screenwriter Olivia Hetreed, Arnold has reinvented the book from the ground up, as anyone coming from a social realist background might: her film aspires to the termite art cited by the critic Manny Farber, as opposed to the lavish, white-elephant treatment most commonly doled out to the classics. From the way this Cathy and Heathcliff are forever peering in windows or round the cracks in doors, we can deduce that Arnold comes at this novel as an outsider. She's not someone who feels especially at home in these rooms, which gives her a new insight into these characters (Heathcliff especially); it's also perhaps why the exteriors in this version come as such a release. As in Jane Campion's recent Bright Star or Joe Wright's part-termite, part-white elephant Pride and Prejudice from 2005, a concerted effort is made to visualise what these characters' lives might be like between the lines, on a moment-by-moment basis. When we're shown how Heathcliff cuts turf or builds a wall, it's both an evocative period detail and the better to understand what any labourer of this period might want to come home to at the end of the day.

The film opens cold, with the elder Heathcliff (James Howson) banging his head repeatedly against a wall upon which a "Cathy-loves-Heathcliff" legend has been graffitied, establishing a world of impenetrable barriers, and it's fair to say this version is far more alert to issues of race and class than its predecessors, though the casting of an explicitly black actor as the previously "dusky" Heathcliff is only a big deal if you allow it to be. I suspect the earthy language and sexuality will come as more of a challenge to Wuthering purists, although the film's abiding air of sensuality - Heathcliff rubbing Cathy's hair dry, the rain lashing down on the moors - shouldn't be anathema. All Arnold has done is to remove this tale of the billowing shirts and curtains it has accrued over the past century; it's still sweeping and romantic, but in a more credible and grounded fashion. When Heathcliff kisses Isabella Linton (Nichola Burley), it's in a manner immediately recognisable from youth clubs everywhere; when he subsequently throws a punch at the girl's brother, it's as though the pair are outside in the youth club car park.

Brontë aficionados will have to like it or lump it, yet even they may warm to the calmness and maturity with which Arnold and Hetreed have gone about rethinking their source: this Wuthering Heights isn't so much in-your-face as all around you, a hazy, intensely atmospheric fog of a film that seeks to immerse the viewer within its embrace. After the jagged, urban Fish Tank, what's surprising is how well Arnold adapts to the rhythms of these moors: she's not afraid to leave in long stretches of silence and inactivity, giving the viewer time to inhabit this world, room to breathe. Did it stir me? Yes, unexpectedly. Unexpectedly, as some of Arnold's performers are as clods of earth tossed to the wind, and meant, I suspect, to register as such. Yet the passions summoned up here seem to transcend their constituent elements, and even the slight missteps in casting come to work in the film's favour. Kaya Scoledario - a Skins graduate - makes a striking older Cathy, but lacks any trace of the mischief Shannon Beer brings to her younger equivalent; then again, maybe that's exactly what gets knocked out of you when you marry for money and stability.

Already, one can sense the negative notices piling up: where's Brontë gone? What business have we with these am-dram performances? Well, for one, I'd argue Arnold was right to present her ensemble as unadorned as she does: this lot really do have the unfaked, unfakeable gaucheness of kids struggling to make their way in the world, which makes this Wuthering Heights peculiarly relevant to 2011, and suggests at least one potential crossover audience. You could, granted, turn your nose up at this general skew towards youth; alternatively, you could argue that, in the novel, Cathy is only nineteen when she takes her leave of the moors for good. More constructive, I think, would be to celebrate the fact that, with the (actually far less even) We Need to Talk About Kevin, we presently have on release two films, and two films directed by women, that make a sustained and mostly successful attempt to throw off the tyranny of literalism that has dogged British cinema and television for so long now. If you can't find at least something to cheer in this adaptation, I'd be surprised, and a little saddened.

Wuthering Heights opens in selected cinemas from tomorrow.

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