Proud People Breed Sorrows for Themselves: the film Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold

Heathcliff: “A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire”

by Daniel Garrett Volume 20, Issue 7 / August 2016 15 minutes (3562 words)

“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord,” begins Wuthering Heights, with the narrator, one of several of the story’s narrators, Mr. Lockwood, noting the beauty of the country, a “perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us” (Charlotte and Emily Brontë: The Complete Novels, Gramercy Books, 1981; page 277). Mr. Lockwood is renting Thrushcross Grange, which once belonged to the Lintons but now belongs to Heathcliff. The book Wuthering Heights is literature, a work of language and thought, a distillation of emotion and gesture and metaphor, a tale of family and embattled love, a story of adoption and harassment, exile and return, a quest for vengeance, and a lesson in the limits of the individual human will. It is the story of Heathcliff and Catherine (Cathy). It is a story of ghosts; of people who haunt each other while alive and after death. Heathcliff is the dark orphan, found in Liverpool—at the time, a great slave port; a boy taken home and accepted as a son by Mr. Earnshaw, who names the boy, and seems to prefer him to his own son, Hindley; and, at first both Catherine and her older brother Hindley are hostile, but when Catherine befriends the boy, Hindley does not—and after Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley treats Heathcliff as a servant, not a brother. Hindley’s attitude seems an attempt to assert power and break Heathcliff’s spirit. In the 2012 film of Wuthering Heights, a story of friendship and dispossession and anger and joyless triumph, Heathcliff is played as a boy by Solomon Glave and as a man by James Howson. It is a beautiful, fragmented, intelligent, rough and startling work, directed by Andrea Arnold (Red Road, 2006; Fish Tank, 2009), with production design by Helen Scott and cinematography by Robbie Ryan. The film’s director Andrea Arnold attended the American Film Institute, and won an Oscar for her short film, Wasp in 2005; and her theatrical feature Red Road was about a woman turning aggressive attention onto a man, starring Katie Dickie and Tony Curran (“Red Road is a film with steel in its soul, and the most encouraging British debut in some time,” said Jonathan Romney in The Independent, October 29, 2006); and the subsequent feature Fish Tank was about a girl and her mother’s boyfriend, with Katie Jarvis as Mia and Michael Fassbender as Connor. Andrea Arnold brings courage, honesty, intellect, and force to her work: she is looking for live truths.

It is hard to forget William Wyler’s 1939 film of Wuthering Heights, with its handsome, brooding Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, luminous Merle Oberon as Catherine, and dazzlingly vital Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabella; or the passionate 1954 interpretation by Luis Bunuel, with Jorge Mistral as Heathcliff and Irasema Dilián. What Andrea Arnold provides is a fresh look with her film, which opened in November 2011 in Britain; and in October 2012 in the United States. Memorable are the portraits of faces, the landscapes, the rainy night on which the accepting patriarch dies, the girl’s boot on her beloved’s face, the look of lusty enthusiasm on the face of another woman who does not know a man does not love her, and two men realizing they love the same woman—and accepting that for the briefest of moments; and more. “Andrea Arnold’s radical take on Wuthering Heights chills like a fogbound moor and stings like brambles. Arnold drastically pares back dialogue and exposition, telling the classic tale of passion and revenge with probing, harshly sensual camera work and a minimum of sentimentality. Where the novel’s Heathcliff was dark, Arnold’s is black, a twist that deepens his sense of tragic isolation and vengeful resentment. James Howson is compelling in the role, and Kaya Scodelario makes Catherine’s aching love for this damaged, angry man as raw as a wound,” wrote Colin Covert in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (December 6, 2012).

Chris Barsanti, a contributor to Film Journal International and the Chicago Tribune and the author of Filmology: A Movie-a-Day Guide, notes how right the casting is, for Brontë described Heathcliff as dark, handsome, moody, proud, finding the movie to be a primal portrait of human error that becomes one of gothic horror. “What’s most bracing about Arnold’s approach (which, again, stays fairly true to the novel, except for including cruder racial epithets than Brontë allows) is how much she shifts the emphasis towards seeing Heathcliff’s brutalization by the Earnshaws from the moment he appears on the farm, as opposed to viewing him from a distance via the novel’s disapproving narrator. After years of beatings and being housed in the barn with the animals, Heathcliff runs off, leaving it no wonder that when he returns later to claim the hand of or maybe exact revenge upon Catherine (Kaya Scodelario). It’s hard to tell which, as love and hate are never quite distinct for them. He’s sullen and vicious, with a log-sized chip on his shoulder, while she’s spoiled and fairly thoughtless,” wrote Chris Barsanti for the online culture magazine Pop Matters (October 5, 2012). The figure of Heathcliff suggests the perception of rage as madness and the perception of madness as passion; and one wonders if that is why the story has been taken as a romance for many years. Obsession reads as devotion. Yet, Heathcliff is the fatal male.

In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, an evocation of late eighteen-century life, a document of rage and wit and the rough handling of children, a novel encompassing tales told in conversation and in dairies and letters, the childhood friendship of Heathcliff and Catherine is one of adventure and intimacy in a fairly desolate place. Their relationship would be intense for the nature of their solitude: who else is there? (Isolation may explain, as well, an inevitable disturbance of mind: in isolation the mind begins to turn on itself.) Despite Hindley’s dislike of the friendship of Heathcliff—after his father’s death, Hindley has returned from college, where he seems not to have been made more liberal—Hindley’s insults and threats of punishment do little to discourage Heathcliff and Catherine. “Hindley calls him a vagabond, and won’t let him sit with us, nor eat with us any more; and, he says, he and I must not play together, and threatens to turn him out of the house if we break his orders,” Catherine writes a journal that the tenant Mr. Lockwood finds, years later, on a night he stays on the estate called Wuthering Heights (The Complete Novels; pages 286 and 287), before Lockwood believes he sees Catherine’s ghost in a surprisingly troubling and bloody scene (288). When as children Catherine and Heathcliff—“both promised fair to grow up as rude as savages” (298)—hear of a new family, the Lintons, at Thrushcross Grange, and go there, they are noticed at the window and run away but Catherine is bitten by a snorting bulldog dog, and she stays behind; and the Lintons take care of her for about five weeks, and upon her return to the Earnshaw place, Wuthering Heights, her manner has changed. She knows now what a young lady is expected to be. She knows other young people. She knows something of society.

Catherine continues a friendship with the Lintons. Yet, Hindley, who is cruel to Heathcliff, does love his own wife Frances, who is weakened by childbirth—her illness is attributed to consumption—and Frances dies, leaving Hindley, the father of Hareton, to grieve and drink. Catherine and Edgar Linton become engaged; and Catherine still hopes to be close to Heathcliff, without being able to accept him in his current station: “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him: and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am,” Catherine says (page 315). That is a lack of acceptance which repels Heathcliff (he leaves the farm and goes out to make his fortune). When, after a couple of years, Heathcliff returns confident, in better clothes and with money. Heathcliff finds that Catherine and Edgar Linton have married—and Catherine welcomes Heathcliff, bringing the hands of Heathcliff and Linton together. Edgar’s sister Isabella has a crush on the now impressive Heathcliff. The housekeeper Nelly thinks, “I was amazed, more than ever, to behold the transformation of Heathcliff. He had grown a tall, athletic, well-formed man; beside whom, my master seemed quite slender and youth-like. His upright carriage suggested the idea of his having been in the army. His countenance was much older in expression and decision of feature than Mr. Linton’s; it looked intelligent, and retained no marks of former degradation. A half-civilized ferocity lurked yet in the depressed brows and eyes full of black fire, but it was subdued; and his manner was even dignified: quite divested of roughness, though too stern for grace” (page 323). Heathcliff both rents a room at Wuthering Heights and gambles with Hindley, who loses money to Heathcliff (Hindley will lose it all). Heathcliff kisses Isabella, angering Edgar. Catherine becomes ill; and she dies soon after giving birth to a daughter, Cathy. Isabella leaves Heathcliff, the conflicted man; driven by ambition and humiliation, love and hate. Who else might Heathcliff had been?

“Who knows but your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen, each of them able to buy up, with one week’s income, Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange together?” says the housekeeper Nelly, after helping the young Heathcliff to clean, comb, and dress, admiring him, upon Catherine’s return from her five week stay at the Lintons (The Complete Novels; page 303). Nelly tells Heathcliff to appreciate his looks and to take on a more optimistic spirit, warning him against hating the world. Yet that is advice that Heathcliff does not take. He cannot see himself as Nelly does. Heathcliff is flooded with his own volatile emotions. Solomon Glave is the boy, James Howson the man, in Arnold’s film; and both are hesitant yet vivid performers. I found Glave mysterious, and moving to watch; and Howson seemed more withholding—coiled—than mysterious. I liked them both. (Arnold told the October 2011 Guardian she picked Howson for his beauty and vulnerability; and that she thinks of Heathcliff and Catherine as “yearning for what they had as kids”). In the early part of the film it is a shock when Catherine, disappointed at what her father Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) has brought her from Liverpool, spits into the young brown boy’s face. Yet, soon, they are walking the hills together, rolling in the dirt together. Mr. Earnshaw loves them but disapproves of what seems spiritual indulgence. He allows Heathcliff to sleep on a palette in Catherine’s room. When Mr. Earnshaw gives Heathcliff a horse, the boy takes him out, finds him wanting, and rather brashly and shrewdly asks Hindley for his horse instead, threatening to show Mr. Earnshaw the bruises Hindley has given Heathcliff if Hindley refuses: Hindley gives him the horse and a few new bruises. Soon Hindley is sent away, to college—something that does not seem to thrill him. There is a great deal of resentment and regret in the air. Hindley would repay Heathcliff’s presumption in time; and so the bitter game would continue.

“Heathcliff in this case is played by the black actor James Howson, perhaps a reflection of scholarly arguments that Brontë was writing about race and class in addition to sexual inequality and the dangers of revenge,” wrote David Belcher of the older Heathcliff in the online Sept 28, 2012 New York Times article that discussed some of the legacy of the Brontë book, which has been filmed several times and made into opera and musicals (the Times article by Belcher was in print September 30). David Belcher went on to explain that “Ms. Arnold’s reconstruction offers a new interpretation of a character Brontë referred to as a dark Gypsy boy from Liverpool, a slave port. She cast virtually unknown actors, including Mr. Howson in his acting debut, and uses minimal dialogue. Instead she fills the screen with volumes of detail about the nature of the moors, the constantly changing weather and the haunting solitude of life there two centuries ago,” wrote Belcher, who spoke to scholars and artists who discussed the ambiguity and torment in Brontë’s storytelling, with its narration of a long, scandalous tale, full of conflict and rivalry. It has been mined for its incendiary love story but also seen by thinkers as a story of a contest for property and power, a struggle of patriarchy.

Writing days later in a New York Times film review, Anthony Oliver Scott noted, “Abandoning the lush and stately romanticism of most earlier filmed versions (like William Wyler’s 1939 swoon fest, with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier as Cathy and Heathcliff), Ms. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, with the screen’s first black Heathcliff (played by two different actors), emphasizes mud, misery and savage, inarticulate feelings. Shot in a boxy format with a drab, harsh palette that suits the weather and the mood of emotional and material deprivation, the movie intersperses vertiginous Yorkshire vistas with almost microscopic examinations of the local flora and fauna” (October 4, 2012). A. O. Scott described the principal relationship between Heathcliff and Catherine (played as a child by Shannon Beer and as a young woman by Kaya Scodelario) as suggesting “a primordial state of hunger, deeper than language, reason or even sexual desire.” It is the kind of attraction that promises a depth and wildness that goes beyond decency and promises to burn away everything else—and to burn out, though it does not. Scott found the determined naturalism of the film technique, with its rough look and cutting and howling emotion, to be as willfully mannered as its opposite: decorous restraint. That may mean no more than that he has noticed that Andrea Arnold has an aesthetic, one with a purpose.

The night vision of Hindley and his wife having sex out in the field, like animals, or of the woman giving birth there, indicate a simplicity, a lack of shame. This was existence with the thinnest texture of civilization—or, finally, no real civilization at all. Maybe that is why Heathcliff and Catherine find it so difficult to leave behind the few real ideas they have: the idea of each other, and of the two of them together, walking on the moors. They see and understand each other in a way they do nothing and no one else. “The desolated bleakness of the countryside, the silence save for the wind, the cold nights by the fire in a family in which no one speaks—these are the atmospherics of Wuthering Heights and the most memorable elements of it,” wrote a disapproving Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle, finding the film’s appeal mostly intellectual, thinking that it is “essentially a misunderstanding of (or an inability to convey) the breathing soul of this material” (October 18, 2012). Mick La Salle did not think making Heathcliff an African resonated enough. It can be a strange assertion to declare that a forceful work of art, or an inspired choice, has a lack of resonance: often, the lack is in ourselves: we bring knowledge and sensitivity to certain things and not others; and the lack we find is in us, not the thing observed. Is that the case here? Stephen Rea of Philadelphia Inquirer (November 9, 2012) wrote, “Shannon Beer, whom Arnold has cast as the young Cathy Earnshaw, looks windblown and lost, while Solomon Glave, as the young Heathcliff, holds the screen with a quiet intensity. His older counterpart, James Howson, performs a credible segue into the adult Heathcliff, but Kaya Scodelario as the grown-up Catherine—gone off and wed to Edgar—looks nothing like Beer, and is too conventionally beautiful for the part,” finding the casting of Heathcliff as black to be “kind of gimmicky and odd.” However, Time magazine’s Mary Pols, who observed the naturalism and sexuality (and despite great reservations about Howson), wrote: “Arnold’s boldest move is to use two young black actors to play Heathcliff, and she should be lauded for taking such an exciting approach. Solomon Glave plays Heathcliff at 12 or so, the one Mr. Earnshaw (Paul Hilton) brings home with him after he finds him on the streets of Liverpool. James Howson takes over the role in the movie’s second half, when he’s fully grown. Is this a stretch? The Heathcliff in Emily Brontë’s book was a gypsy, a vagabond, an ill-mannered street child, regularly described as ‘dark’ but in at least one passage as not ‘a regular black.’ That suggests some leeway, that Heathcliff could have been of mixed race, part Gypsy, part black, part anything but white, a perspective that’s not new to literary scholarship even if the most notable cinematic Heathcliffs have been lily white types like Sir Laurence Olivier and Ralph Fiennes” (October 5, 2012).

The director Andrea Arnold has responded to descriptions of her work as bleak: to interviewer Ryan Gilbey of The Guardian (October 31, 2011), Arnold said, “I have such passion for what I do that I can’t see it as bleak. When people use that word, or ‘grim’ or ‘gritty,’ I just think, ‘Oh, come on, look a bit deeper.’ My films don’t give you an easy ride. I can see that. The sense I get is that people have quite a physical experience with them. They feel afterwards that they’ve really been through something.” Some viewers did look more deeply: “A muddy boot on the face quashes a soulmate/lover/brother, blood-soaked petticoats hide babies delivered out-of-doors, trapped and dying animals litter the landscape. But the film also features, and at last, an inclusion of some of the themes of this primeval but intellectually prescient novel: class warfare, a feminist subtext of women unable to own property, how destructive the mind-body connection can be when the self wars against itself,” wrote Marsha McCreadie in Film Journal International (October 4, 2012).

When Howson’s Heathcliff returns, ambling, soulful, insistent, he is welcomed, but his constant visits begin to bother Catherine’s husband Edgar, who remains shy despite his privilege and status as gentleman and husband. Catherine is fascinated by Heathcliff, but angry that he left and wary about his character; and Isabella (Nichola Burley), Edgar’s sister, is charmed. Catherine is made irritated and jealous by the infatuation. The great popular critic Roger Ebert finds sex as the central appeal of Wuthering Heights, the story of a young woman attracted to the dangerous man. Roger Ebert affirmed, “This is a more compact, tougher Wuthering Heights than we’ve seen before, lacking the refined pleasures of most versions. Is it possible Arnold’s vision is closer to the fantasies Brontë experienced while writing her novel—but was reluctant to make more explicit? (As it is, she felt enough ambiguity about it to conceal herself behind a male pseudonym, Ellis Bell.) Arnold has been successful in reimagining the story’s archetypal emotions in the story, bringing it closer to its passionate elements,” but Ebert ultimately found the film too drearily slow. It could be argued that Arnold conveys the quality of country life—isolated and slow, but dangerously fierce. Certainly, one British reviewer caught the true purpose of her technique: The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw wrote, “In the most extraordinary way, Arnold achieves a kind of pre-literary reality effect. Her film is not presented as another layer of interpretation, superimposed on a classic’s frills and those of all the other remembered versions, but an attempt to create something that might have existed before the book, something on which the book might have been based, a raw semi-articulate series of events, later polished and refined as a literary gemstone. That is an illusion, of course, but a convincing and thrilling one” (November 10, 2011). Bradshaw recognized a love between children and outsiders—and equals; and a film of beauty without false gloss.

The rest of the story of Heathcliff and Catherine is something that is worth noting, for its speculations about, and insight, into human nature. Catherine and Edgar’s daughter—Cathy—is protected, reared with little knowledge of the difficult history that preceded her; and she meets her cousin Hareton, Hindley’s son, a boy the vengeful Heathcliff has kept from a proper education. Edgar brings his sister Isabella’s son Linton, who is Heathcliff’s son too, back to Thrushcross Grange, following Isabella’s death; and Heathcliff’s wants his son with him—and, more, Heathcliff wants the sensitive and weak Linton and Cathy to marry, so that Heathcliff might control the property when Edgar dies. The two young people begin a correspondence (Cathy thinks it is secret between the two of them); and Heathcliff insists on their marriage. It is a brutal insistence. Heathcliff is full of malicious plans. Heathcliff does gain control of the property, but this does not seem to bring him happiness or peace: he remains haunted by Catherine; and walks on the moors thinking of her. After Linton and Heathcliff dies, Catherine and Edgar’s daughter Cathy plans to marry Hindley’s son Hareton; cousins marrying—so the property is returned to the original owners.

(Submitted on May 14, 2014)

Daniel Garrett, a child of the American south, Louisiana, where he grew up reading, taking photographs, and enjoying fishing and a good summer barbecue, Daniel moved to New York and became a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art& Antiques, and organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon. Long interested in human complexity, intelligence, experiment, and cultural diversity, Garrett has researched various cultures, and he wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. His work has appeared as well in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. He returned to the south, where he worked on philosophical fiction, the novel A Stranger on Earth.

Volume 20, Issue 7 / August 2016 Film Reviews