The Rose and the Briar
by Genevieve Yue
Dir. Andrea Arnold, U.K., Oscilloscope Laboratories
Wuthering, as Emily Brontë’s gothic classic Wuthering Heights tells us, describes a type of wind: bracing, brutal, and typical of storms ever-present on the Yorkshire moors where the novel and a new film adaptation by Andrea Arnold are set. Like Brontë, Arnold suffuses her film with the marshland’s vivid, close-up detail, from the gales that howl across the broad, sloping hills to the hardy bristles of the brush blanketing its surface. In both narratives, nature, felt most often in its turbulent force, is as much a part of the troubled romance between young Catherine and Heathcliff as any character. It exteriorizes their doomed passion and cuts a destructive path; never in Arnold’s film can we ignore the irrepressible rain and snow outside Wuthering Heights’ stone farmhouse walls. If a single image could describe the ravages of this tragic affair, it’s the silhouette of a lone, leafless tree, bowed by the wind.
Arnold’s take on the story is split in two: the first part depicts Heathcliff’s arrival at Wuthering Heights, brought in by the kindly Mr. Earnshaw to the chagrin of his two children, Hindley and Catherine. The latter, after spitting upon the strange boy— in Arnold’s version, Heathcliff is explicitly black, where in the novel his dark skin more ambiguously signals his otherness—takes quickly to his company; the former, motivated by racial hatred, does not. We see the young Catherine (Shannon Beers) and Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) roam the scrub of the moors, sometimes on foot, sometimes astride ponies. They scramble up a rocky mount to survey the vast, uninhabited land surrounding the Heights, and gather feathers to examine in the attic bedroom they share. At home, Hindley (Lee Shaw) brutalizes Heathcliff, jealous of his father’s affections for this wayward adoptee. The second half of the film takes place several years later, after Heathcliff has left and returned to the Heights. Now an adult, Heathcliff (James Howson) learns that Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) has married wealthy Edgar Linton (James Northcote), and together with his sister Isabella (Nichola Burley) they live in the stately, serene Thrushcross Grange miles away from the stormy Heights. The film takes us through Catherine and Heathcliff’s rocky reunion, and the devastating events that follow.
The film’s two parts reflect if not different sensibilities, then strongly different relationships to the source material. While the second is cluttered with events from the novel, much of it involving thrashing (not to mention grave-digging, head-slamming, and an implied act of necrophilia), it moves considerably slower than the first, owing, in part, to the adult actors’ wan and whinging performances. Scodelario is slight by comparison to Beers’s sturdy, hale Cathy, and while the emotional toll of her years of separation from Heathcliff might explain her frailty, the intensity of her eyes are also diminished, despite Scodelario’s mannered attempts to flash them at Heathcliff. In figure, meanwhile, Howson cuts the fitting image of the changed, now gentlemanly Heathcliff, though in speaking he loses much of the character’s fierce reserve. The wild otherness of the young Heathcliff derives largely from Glave’s nearly mute performance; when words form in his mouth they are not so much said as spat. Howson’s torrents of speech, though they reveal more of the hero’s anguish, have the adverse effect of making him less Byronic than melodramatic.
Wuthering Heights is most entrancing when Arnold gives herself space to fill a frame, “to tell the story leisurely,” as in the words and manner of Brontë’s narrator, the housemaid Nelly. As in her previous film, Fish Tank, Arnold is far more attentive to the nervy tempos of teenage life, caught in fleeting glimpses, than the lifeless and disappointing adults against whom her characters rebel. With young Heathcliff and Catherine, the film’s most searing images occur when Arnold allows herself to drift from the Brontë source. In one instance, when Catherine trips on a bog and falls, Heathcliff playfully pins her to the ground, holding and squeezing her wrists. As he looks, somewhat puzzled, at the black mud delicately splattered on Catherine’s face, her giggles subside and she closes her eyes in an expression of surrender, erotic pleasure, or both. Later, after a particularly vicious lashing across Heathcliff’s already scarred back, Catherine lifts up his shirt to lightly touch her tongue to his wounds. These are startling evocations of adolescent sadomasochism, but more to the heart of the matter, they feel out the hazy border between child’s play and adult suffering, and the closeness that can come with pain both received and exacted.
Arnold beautifully captures the feeling of physical closeness in these wordless intimacies, though cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s excessive use of shallow and rack focus perhaps overstates the point (props, though, to the focus puller). At times, she also undercuts the dreamy atmosphere of poetic mystery that suffuses the film’s first half by reverting to clunky symbolism, as in the case of Catherine’s cherished lapwing feather, a black-and-white token reminiscent of Seinfeld’s fabled vanilla-and-chocolate cookie, or the tired device of characters emitting small coughs that foreshadow their demise. The film’s structural imbalance might be chalked up to the burdens of adaptation, though certainly the plodding thickness of the second half could have used keener editorial intervention.
Wuthering Heights’ most obvious alteration of Brontë’s classic is the casting of a black Heathcliff. While his origins were unclear in the novel, the racial epithets uttered by Hindley and just about everyone else are unambiguous. The choice at once underscores the boy’s otherness, and explains the hostility he faces from everyone but Mr. Earnshaw and Catherine, but it also locks him into a state of perpetual abjection perhaps not faced by the novel’s “dirty, ragged, black-haired child.” In Brontë’s version, Heathcliff is meant to be an enigma, a man with no status who rises, inexplicably, to fortune. He’s viewed from the perspective of others who regard him with, at best, curiosity, and at worst, fear and hostility. And though Arnold shoots her film from his point of view, hiding in hallways or peering furtively into windows, we gain no more intimacy with his character. For all its quivering detail, the film still holds us at a distance.
In song, we derive a few clues as to Heathcliff’s hardened demeanor, and Catherine’s sympathy with him. Though Arnold includes no music in her naturalistic adaptation, we’re given the sounds of a passing band and a few folk songs sung by Nelly and Catherine. Along with “Black is the Colour of My Love’s Hair,” we hear strains from the tragic “The Cuckoo,” and, upon her father’s beseeching, young Catherine sings the first few verses of “Barbara Allen.” The song tells the story of a man sick with love for a woman. He calls her to his deathbed to comfort him, but there she tells him coldly, “Young man, I think you’re dying.” Few words in folk music are as cruel; the man dies, and Barbara Allen, stricken with grief, follows soon after. They are buried next to each other, and in some versions of the song, a rose that grows from his grave becomes entwined with a briar that springs from hers, a bond of pain and tenderness fixed eternally in death. Catherine doesn’t reach the end of the song, but we glimpse how its tragic conclusion will haunt her tale, and Heathcliff’s, nevertheless.