Wuthering Heights, directed by Andrea Arnold

Never mind the prissy costume drama bollocks. This raw punk historicism is a landmark, in several senses, of British cinema.

Submitted by Tom Jennings on February 2, 2012

Othering Depths. Film review – Tom Jennings
This astonishing effort from the director of Red Road (2004) and Fish Tank (2009)* confirms her uncompromising cinematic approach, portraying without a trace of pride, prejudice, piety or sentimentality the trials and tribulations of characters struggling in quagmires of conflictual class relations. Rejecting the voluminous bourgeois baggage associated with the source material, Arnold sidesteps the sense and sensibility of period drama and literature and focuses directly on the scandalous pitch of Emily Bronte’s pioneering 1847 novel. But the book’s gothic Romanticism merely orchestrated the tragic repercussions of a passionate but socially impossible relationship, conveniently deflecting the authorial voice onto the commentary of servants as purportedly neutral observers who, nevertheless, fully conform to local norms. Whereas the film goes straight for the imaginative jugular, with no narration and scant dialogue interrupting the majestic ambient soundscape and scenery of rugged moorland. Thus the explicit and implicit menace of social hierarchy dressed in coercive legitimisation, polite conversation, hypocrisy and self-deception gives way to a primal vision of unthinking childhood exuberance, fear, cruelty and enchantment inexorably ground down, tainted and twisted by supposedly civilised society.

The original story saw an abandoned child or runaway slave charitably rescued from urban destitution, so Arnold intelligibly casts Heathcliff as black and uniquely assumes his viewpoint on arrival in the otherworldly austerity of a Yorkshire hillfarm ‘safe haven’. His position decisively ‘beyond the pale’ parallels adoptive sister Cathy’s outsider status courtesy of her uncontrollable conduct not fitting sex or station, with the young teenagers’ rebellious partnership articulated in a naturalistic, expressionistic register of body language, physical sensation and emotional resonance matching the wild weather, landscape, flora and fauna they revel in. Rarely have the souls of human animals mingled so intensely on screen with the impassive blood and guts of the natural environment, and Robbie Ryan’s magnificent cinematography centralising the first-time actors’ uncontrived performances captures the essence of the pair’s visceral yearning, temporarily escaping the comparable brutality and caprice – and occasional tender empathy – of home and community which, conversely, promise only heartache. Cathy can displace her quandary and console herself by marrying money but, most significantly, Heathcliff has no tolerable options – his unlikely social mobility requiring further exile in a cumulative dialectics of estrangement. For both of them, the rupture inflicts permanent scars worldly rewards cannot heal.

The film’s narrative unfortunately comes unstuck, along with any chances of ecstatic consummation, after his return and Cathy’s depressive decline and ensuing death in childbirth – commercial pressures partly overdetermining a somewhat banal closure with the prodigal, now wealthy, Heathcliff increasingly unhinged in vengeful hatred. In fact resolutions were ambivalent in Red Road and Fish Tank too, where forward momentum followed the protagonists transcending crippling animosity and misguided desire via interpersonal experimentation and collective engagement. But with Wuthering Heights the director lacked complete creative control and, hamstrung by having not to lose the inherited plot, could not overcome its petit-bourgeois double determinism – the hopeless idealisation of traditional courtly romance dovetailing with future satisfaction being unthinkable beyond the horizon of individualised socioeconomic aspiration. She does succeed in undermining the reactionary biologism of passive femininity and male potency more thoroughly than did Bronte, having laid bare the mutually affirmative sensuality of the childhood bond and its equitable distribution of strength and submission. However, paradoxically, this co-dependent trajectory drains the denouement of residual poignancy and power despite far closer attention to the dual formation of character armour in renegade spirits.

Moreover, the enervating demands of emotional realism disallow narcissistic heroics from wishing away the miserable weight of history to fulfil fantasies always already fully circumscribed by material foundations reinforced in institutional superstructure. Yet both scholarly and popular recuperations of the story compulsively shoehorn its underlying dilemmas into sub-par Mills & Boon formulas, in hysterical denial of what Bronte foregrounded but was similarly unable to digest. True, the novel showed mad love’s torture reverberating through subsequent generations, in a moral microcosm of the history of oppression blighting human potential – the author’s protofeminist intelligence glimpsing the logic of the social reproduction of suffering but, crucially, at the considerable cost of the motivations of an utterly alien ‘Other’ remaining unfathomable. Arnold convincingly cuts through such mystifications, fleshing out said alien’s perspective and thereby hinting at the intrinsic commonality of apparently diverse forms of domination. Class, race and gender, here, are not separate phenomena merely happening to ‘intersect’ – but are actively co-constituted on the basis of the objectification of nature, human nature and social practice sedimenting into unequal patterns of activity and exchange. Given that such an intuitively appealing paradigm still eludes satisfactory philosophical and political elucidation, this is surely no mean feat.
* reviewed in Variant 29 (www.variant.org) and Freedom, 21st November 2009 respectively (both also available on libcom).
Wuthering Heights is released on DVD on 26th March.
A short version of this review was first published in Freedom, Vol. 73, No. 2, February 2012.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see: