Ask most people about their first impression of Wuthering Heights—whether they were introduced to the torrid story of thwarted lovers Heathcliff and Catherine through reading Emily Brontë’s gothic page-turner or via myriad TV and film adaptations—and they will talk about swoony notions of romance and repressed passion. Pitch this question to Andrea Arnold, however, and it’s matters of the gut, rather than the heart, that get mentioned first. “I saw the Laurence Olivier version when I was about ten years old,” she says, referring to the 1939 movie starring the Shakespearean actor and Merle Oberon, “and it had a profoundly disturbing effect on me here.” Sitting in Oscilloscope’s downtown offices, the 51-year-old filmmaker places her hand on her midsection. “When I read the novel in my early 20s, I thought I’d be able to clarify what bothered me as a child—but the book ended up unnerving me even more. I don’t think I understood it, and yet I hadn’t stopped thinking about it since I’d first read it, either."
An alleged inability to fully grasp Brontë’s tale, however, didn’t prevent her from tackling this classic—and delivering what is easily the most gloriously feral literary adaptation of any canonized work to date. A decidely anti-Masterpiece Theater take on the material, her Wuthering Heights not only restores Heathcliff’s ambiguously non-Anglo heritage, a detail that other films usually ignore; it throws a cast of largely nonprofessional actors into the rough terrain of the English moors and lets them run wild. Like her previous features—the brooding thriller Red Road (2006) and the kitchen-sink parable of empowerment Fish Tank (2009)—this jittery, elemental take uses impressionistic visuals and unkempt, off-the-cuff style to emphasize its characters’ inner turmoil. During the film’s first hour, the younger Heathcliff and Catherine (played by Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer) scamper across rocks and muddy fields, all hormones and animalistic behavior. (After he injures himself, his female companion literally licks his wound.) When the grown twosome, now portrayed by James Howson and Kaya Scodelario, are later forced to deal with society’s strict moral codes, you can practically feel them itching to rip off their period garb and run free.
“The fact that they’re kids actually explains a lot of their crazy behavior: They’re emotionally out of control!” says Arnold. “But the key is where the adult Heathcliff goes back to the house where they first met and sees the writing on the wall. Because of the movies, we’ve come to expect it to be a straightforward love story, but it’s actually a longing story. She was the first person to show him kindness, so while desire plays a role, it’s really about going back to that moment of an initial human connection."
While Arnold was self-admittedly groping in the dark over her feelings for the book, she still jumped at the chance to add her contribution to the growing number of realizations (per IMDb, up to 25 and counting). Having taken the assignment on a whim, she then had to deal with inherited decisions and a preapproved script, an experience which she likens to “stepping behind the wheel of a car already going 60 miles per hour.” Plus there was the fact that Arnold vowed she’d never go the page-to-screen route. “I got a text from a friend,” the director says. “It read: ‘You said you’d never do an adaptation, and then you only go and pick one of the most famous books in English literature to adapt, you stupid cow!’ I thought, he’s bloody well right. I had such a hard time finding my voice in the original script that I finally thought, I can only make this movie the way I know how. So I started from scratch, and made what I saw in my head.” Arnold pauses. “It’s not a commercial film, and there are no famous people in it; even if the title is the star, I don’t think people are going to get the Wuthering Heights they expect. But fuck it, I don’t care. It’s 100 percent mine.”
Wuthering Heights opens Fri 5 at Film Forum.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear