As a student, and ultimately, a teacher of literature, Emily Brontë and her sister provided staples for reading and analysis of the time period, and while Wuthering Heights isn’t a favorite, I do appreciate the passion of its characters and intense and intriguing storyline. Director Andrea Arnold takes on the weighty character of Heathcliff and follows his life from boyhood to adult, as he traverses the emotional boundaries of social class and relationships. Hers is a vision quite different than the one I imagined as I read the novel and one that leans more toward drastic, dark imagery than Brontë’s original story.
Occasionally, when warranted, I watch a film, not through the eyes of a critic, but rather, through the eyes of an English teacher, wondering as I watch, if my students would appreciate the telling of a classic piece taken to film, if the story offered is pure and true to its source, and if my students might opt to watch rather than read, would they get the heart of the literary work. Oh, if I had a dollar for each time I heard “Ms. Coker, is there a movie?” I don’t teach Wuthering Heights, but a few of my colleagues do, so I watched as a teacher too.
Wuthering Heights opens with Heathcliff as a boy and moves slowly and meticulously through his life – a life of darkness and brooding and one where young Heathcliff falls in love – he a poor orphan and she, Catherine, the daughter of a well-intentioned Christian farmer who takes Heathcliff in. Regardless of his guardian’s intentions, Heathcliff is treated no better than a common servant, but Catherine still becomes emotional connected to the young man.
Quite different from the original tale, Arnold makes the bold choice to cast black actors (newcomers Soloman Glave and James Howson) as her lead (young and older Heathcliff), and Brontë does indeed refer to her protagonist as having dark skin, but other directors have always cast White actor to play him. Glave (as the younger) and Howson (as the older Heathcliff) do well as Heathcliff and do drive the film with their passionate portrayals. No other cast member stands out. By virtue of this choice, the film (unlike the novel) has an air of racial tension, but truthfully, Arnold’s telling focuses more on imagery and story and her filmmaking, while not always engaging in storytelling is, indeed, remarkably beautiful to watch, even with the at times darker than necessary images.
Of note too, is Arnold’s choice to use virtually no soundtrack for her film, except that is for an occasional hymn sung by her characters. Because of this, I at times found myself more irritated by her imagery than impressed. This is not to say the film isn’t beautiful and strikingly filmed, because it is. I just found myself wanting more dialogue (it is sorely limited in this telling) and less spanning of landscapes, character close ups and artistic camera angles.
Still, Arnold’s telling, while not as good as others, does offer some sexual tension that I am sure Emily Brontë would have liked and approved of, but could not include herself. I don’t see contemporary students of Brontë’s novel sitting patiently still for Arnold’s telling. I squirmed and I’m a literature lover. From a teacher’s standpoint, I see little to engage the students in Arnold’s telling, but her artistry and attention to detail impresses nonetheless. I am placing a C+ in my grade book. I prefer previous films about Heathcliff, in terms of storytelling, but appreciate Arnold’s craft.