Book Smart

Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights, 2011, 35 mm, color, 128 minutes. Young Heathcliff and Young Catherine (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer).

THERE IS A QUAINT DEVICE in old Hollywood adaptations of, say, the Brontë sisters, or Charles Dickens, or Walter Scott, where a leatherbound volume creaks open on-screen, and its pages flutter to the title page under their own power. The printed page then dissolves into the scene itself while the narrator intones the opening lines. Latter-day prestige adaptations no longer belabor the point. Indeed, such an announcement of the literary reference or a reminder of the audible act of reading could only embarrass us as a flashing of credentials. Films such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) or Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) are independent works of art, we are assured, not full-dress audiobooks.

But if adaptations today, in their high Oscar-worthiness, distance themselves from reading (turning pages, moving one’s lips, skipping ahead), they have also exempted themselves from any interpretative charge—from giving a reading. They are as interpretively neutral as the cinematic conversion of the Bourne novels.

Andrea Arnold’s new film of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is unapologetically tendentious, arguing a definite perspective on the novel. If a lazy college student might watch a BBC version of the film to avoid having to read the book, Arnold’s version could be a substitute for the professor’s lecture and secondary reading.

This movie will probably be talked about and remembered for casting black actors (Solomon Glave and James Howson) to play Heathcliff. Everything falls into place if you see the character in this way, and in this sense it is utterly faithful to the book. Not that Heathcliff “is” black in the novel, whatever that would mean. But as a reading, it simply works. When I first heard about this casting, I almost slapped my forehead—Of course!—at its obvious brilliance. It’s the most successful thing in the film, so much so that previous adaptations must now appear to us like Orson Welles casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil (1958) or Welles’s own performance as Othello (1952).

When Heathcliff first arrives at Wuthering Heights, a child rescued from the streets and brought into a less-than-welcoming family, he can hardly form English words. Instead of speaking or interacting, he is an observer. Almost every scene in the movie involves his looking through a window, through a door left ajar, through the trellis work of his fingers—he is a spectator forever hunched into some hiding space. It’s not a world that he is shut off from, but one that he is shut up within. The key image here is the Earnshaws’ cabinet-like bed, which splits the difference between private refuge and punitive confinement. Sexuality is like this, too: Heathcliff and Cathy aren’t star-crossed lovers mourning the impossibility of being together; they rather take a perverse pleasure in inflicting themselves on each other. Far from an insurmountable separation, their relationship looks more like claustrophobia.

If Heathcliff looks much more than he speaks, there is actually very little dialogue between any of the characters—if dialogue means people talking to each other. Speech here is always giving orders, or demanding apologies, or dictating what someone else should feel, or powerlessly flailing out: “Fuck you all, you cunts!” or “Nigger.” Talk is at others. When Heathcliff tells Catherine, “My life has been bitter since I last heard your voice. I kept going only for you,” this is a disarming cri de coeur, yes, but it is also a threat. He is outlining just what he plans to exact from her, almost in revenge.

There’s a scene in Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, where a distressed teenage girl comes across a horse tethered to a trailer in a vacant lot. She tries to free the horse, but she can’t cut through the padlock. We, who are not distressed teenage girls, can only ask what good it would do to free the horse. Enfeebled by captivity, let loose among council flats, the horse could only starve to death, or get hit by a car, or injure itself, or worse. This is not a world to be set free in. Heathcliff’s fate is like this. Early in the story, when he is virtually enslaved by Hindley Earnshaw, repeatedly beaten, and treated like an animal, all we wish for is for him to escape. But when he gains his freedom, and even some measure of revenge on Hindley, everything still remains closed off for him except to listlessly roam the premises of Thrushcross Grange until he is battered and starved and crawls off somewhere to die.

Arnold focuses almost entirely on Heathcliff, excising the novel’s frame narrative along with much of the labyrinthine Victorian inheritance plot, and about twenty years of the story. By cutting away what is chatty and intricate, Arnold believes that she is directly grasping what is immediate and strongly felt at the core of Brontë’s novel. But the readerly task of clearing away the brush, of trying to catch a glimpse, of sorting out competing narratives—is itself what is meaningful. Longing, in its naked being-there, is less interesting than when sighted awry. The result is that Arnold’s movie essentially stalls after the halfway mark. This could be read generously, as a comment on how the characters remain rooted in their childhood selves, as stunted in their growth as the contorted trees bent over by the upland winds. But it is simply tedious. Lyrical expressivity and unmuted feeling are in fact childish, juvenile.

And while all of this incommunicable hurt and longing remains true, deeply true to Brontë’s vision, what ought to have been haunting images about the wringing-dry of the human soul instead comes across as a very smart, well-researched lecture about discursivity, fixation, and the racial other. To dwell too long on the profound and unutterable, of course, ends by conjuring up a fantasy of access. Arnold’s “no filter” aesthetic, which owes much to the unflinching directness of the Dardenne brothers, works best when she is disclosing how emotional life exists not directly but only through its obfuscations and framings. So, in clearing away everything but the agonized yearning of Heathcliff for his own self within Cathy, Arnold has only rediscovered an even drearier tome than the literary classic: academia’s conventional wisdom.

Wuthering Heights opens Friday, October 5 at Film Forum in New York.