All the subtext of Wuthering Heights is stuck at surface level
English filmmaker Andrea Arnold's atypical, impressionistic approach to Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is her adaptation's main hook. As with Fish Tank and Red Road, Arnold's last two feature-length dramas, the new Wuthering Heights is very much about the act of looking. The novel's tempestuous plot is thus unmercifully filtered through the eyes of Heathcliff, a freed slave and newly adopted member of the Earnshaw family, here presented as a frustrated voyeur — and not at all the white Brit of previous adaptations.
This Heathcliff's (Solomon Glave) arrival at the Earnshaws' estate is announced with shaky-cam photography that suggests the film's worldview is dependent on Heathcliff's emotions. His head space is a muddled map of dank Southern Gothic pretension, full of anticipation and fearful excitement, and Arnold illustrates his alternatively oppressive and liberated life with the Earnshaws with animal skulls and ambles through wind-tossed moors. When he's not brooding, Heathcliff is quietly spying on the wild Catherine Earnshaw (Shannon Beer) through cracks in doors or from a distance that's all the more pronounced by cinematographer Robbie Ryan's violently jiggly camera movements. Arnold makes the act of looking feel not just forbidden, but also downright ugly. Heathcliff is constantly reminded that he can't really get what he wants because he can't interact with the Earnshaws on an equal social level — now not only because he's poor and uncouth, as in earlier adaptations, but also because he's black.
Arnold and co-writer Olivia Hetreed's take on Heathcliff's story is confined to experiential detail, leaving viewers at arm's length. (Brontë likewise denied her readers a sense of proximity to Heathcliff.) The camera floats around the periphery of his vision but almost never seamlessly approximates his perspective. Whenever we seem to be looking at events through his eyes, the back of Glave's head bobs into view, like a rude movie-goer who has arrived late to the show. That mud-and-Vaseline aesthetic smothers the film's capable cast. No individual performer stands out because Arnold's camera is effectively acting for and over them.
Heathcliff performs a revelatory, wanton act of animal cruelty toward the end of the film, when, now older (and played by James Howson), he can't flatter himself into thinking that the Earnshaws—Catherine and her sister-in-law Isabella (Nichola Burley), in particular—are secondary characters in his own story. This tragic denouement is reliant on the too easy bursting of Heathcliff's narcissistic bubble. But because Arnold sympathizes with the tumultuous and finite perspective that defines her Heathcliff, she indulges rather than explores it.
As always, the young Heathcliff leaves the Earnshaws after learning that Catherine is engaged and only returns when he has physically grown up. Ryan's camera now tepidly bobs alongside Howson, but with a more keen attention to space. People and objects and environments are no longer conflated onto a single visual plane. You might think that this relatively refined aesthetic is Arnold's way of encouraging viewers to finally relax and enjoy the view from Heathcliff's head. Instead, she's visually replicating the sangfroid that characterizes his return to the Earnshaws' now-destitute estate.
That frustrated attempt to reintegrate back into the now-collapsed society that rejected him makes Wuthering Heights an interesting variation on the themes established by Arnold's previous features. Red Road and Fish Tank also both concern outsiders who learn that they're never not participating in other people's lives. But Heathcliff tells us outright what Arnold's use of handheld digital POV photography might mean to signify: erasing the past to create an often amorally turbulent present. "There is nothing I want to remember," the adult Heathcliff tells Frances late in the film. He's talking about his time away from the Earnshaws, but he could just as easily be self-diagnosing Arnold's aversion to thematic introspection.
But if even Arnold inadvertently acknowledges the tortuous limitations of her approach (as fun to watch as being strangled like a dog!), why replicate it so studiously? Heathcliff does not get the revenge he wants, because he wants to escape the specific traumas of his adolescent past, shown in the film's first half — and because Arnold traps her viewers with Heathcliff's murky version of events. There's no room for enriching subtext in this version of Wuthering Heights; all the information we need is inscribed on the film's glassy surface.
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