December 06, 2011

Wuthering Heights

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“With regard to the rusticity of Wuthering Heights, I admit the charge, for I feel the quality. It is rustic all through. It is moorish, and wild, and knotty as the root of heath.”

In Andrea Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights,these reflections by Charlotte Brontë on her sister Emily’s novel become more pertinent than ever: not so much in that it is moorish, wild, knotty, rustic, but in the suggestion that we “feel the quality”. In Arnold’s stripped-bare adaptation it is feeling, both physical and emotional, that dominates this Wuthering Heights.

It is, from the start, a violent film: raw and bleak, muddy and bloody. The film doesn’t shy away from a brutal violence either amongst its characters, or in its depictions of rural life. The landscape is, throughout, prominent – more so, perhaps, than in Brontë’s novel – but not sentimentalised, idealised or romanticised. Here, the landscape simply is; through camera-angles burrowing through the heath or focusing on a grub, the land is left to speak for itself. The absence of music – or even much speech –contributes to this: detailed sights are accompanied by sharply focused sounds that further add to the effect of not just seeing, but really feeling the landscape.

Likewise, the emotions here are raw, bleak, simple; characters simply are rather than given the feeling of being “interpreted” or presented. They are left largely unexplored in terms of psychological depth, driven by emotion – not so much in terms of there being explicit, recognisable forces or motivations, but that there is little other than response and feeling behind each action and movement. Interpretation seems to take a back seat for both actors and viewer; it’s a strange experience to watch this film, as we’re not asked to interpret, question or even engage in the way we might usually with a film or text. It’s a form of realism which, whilst appearing to strip back technique, or mediation simultaneously persists in making us aware of the process of viewing.

Wuthering Heights

As a result, the film seems to resist much of what we might want to read into it in terms of its depiction of gender and race. In the first half of the film the young Cathy and Heathcliff, both individually and together, resist being interpreted as raced/ gendered types and, as with the rest of the text, simply exist in and of themselves; individual mannerisms, behaviours, emotions surface here.

This in turn complicates how we read what has become the most talked-about aspect of the film, that this Heathcliff is the first non-white Heathcliff; but how significant is this in the film's presentation? The problem with so much critical interest in this aspect of the film is that the viewer goes in with an expectation and, perhaps, an agenda to focus on the portrayal of race and what interpretation this lends to the text. This is, to an extent, always true in so far as a film of Wuthering Heights has to take a critical judgement on the most interesting ambiguity of the text, Heathcliff’s unknown origins. One of the most interesting and anxiety-ridden elements of the text is that the question of Heathcliff's origins resist interpretation: it's the fact that Heathcliff could potentially be from anywhere that lingers as the text's most pervasive yet unspoken fear.

Equally, it isn’t impossible that Heathcliff “could” be black: his origins are unknown and he is variously read as being Chinese, Indian, Spanish, American, or African. As critics such as Susan Meyer have argued, regardless of his “actual” origins, Heathcliff is read by others in the text as "black", positioned as the black subject through the treatment by other characters who subject him “to the potent gaze of a racial arrogance derived from British imperialism” (Imperialism at Home).

Here, Heathcliff’s origins remain a subject of some doubt: the film retains lines in which he’s referred to as a “little Lascar”, or speculating that he might be "the son of an African prince or Chinese queen" (slightly altered from “your father was Emperor of China, and your mother an Indian queen” in the text). This brings to the surface the nineteenth-century Imperial perspective in which all non-white subjects are collectively grouped together as “black”, regardless of actual origins; the brutality of violence enacted on Heathcliff here served to reiterate the power dynamic within this. But beyond this, it didn’t feel as though the film was working to make a particular point "about" race and the nineteenth century; the violence extends throughout all characters and, as with other elements of the text, his race is presented in a matter-of-fact manner.

If the film does anything to make this about Heathcliff, it's that it centres him as narrative perspective. This gives more structure and coherence to a text which is notably unstable in its narrative perspective, and for that reason this becomes a narrative of Heathcliff. Perhaps as a result of this, the blurred relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff felt less prominent and less intense; and of Cathy’s most famous lines “he’s more myself than I am” and“Nelly, I am Heathcliff”, the first is cut short and the latter omitted. Interestingly, this therefore serves to break what Susan Meyer notes as a recurrent motif in the nineteenth-century novel of a representational yoking of white women with people of non-white races.

In terms of structure, the film follows most other adaptations in only focusing on the first half of the novel. Having said that, it’s still very much a film of two halves, with the switch in actors when Cathy marries and Heathcliff leaves and then returns. As others have noted, whilst Solomon Grave and Shannon Beer are excellent, the second pairing of James Howson and Kaya Scodelario doesn’t maintain much of what the younger actors achieve so well, and the relationship lacks the earlier chemistry; but in some ways, this discontinuity and jarring seemed right to me. Heathcliff returns changed by his journey away, and to find Cathy socialised as Edgar's wife; the connection of their youth is clearly lost, and the stilted atmosphere that now existed between the two reiterated the inability to recapture what had been lost and the new maturity of the characters. There's a commentary here, too, about the social impossibility of their relationship, something the text doesn't engage so much with in its focus on the passion between them. This half of the film therefore operates in the way that the second half of Bronte's novel does, holding up the first half to scrutiny.

These are just some initial reflections on a film that offers much both in terms of its interpretation of Bronte's text and in terms of wider ideas about adaptations of nineteenth-century texts; but I’ll be thinking more about both the film and adapations of nineteenth-century texts in general in a piece for the Knowledge Centre with Francesca Scott.

- 5 comments by 2 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Kenneth Brewer

    I’m not that familiar with WH adaptations (I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen only the 1939 one). The comments on the narrative perspective intrigue me. Does this work in the film? Is is something that is almost necessary for a feature-length film, to give it coherence? I’ve just taught the Fukunaga Jane Eyre adaptation, which of course plays around with the plot structure to provide coherence (or perhaps, a different sort of coherence, given that Jane Eyre is not narratively unstable in the same way).

    23 Feb 2012, 20:53

  2. Charlotte Mathieson

    Yes, I thought that focusing the film through Heathcliff was an especially interesting move- as you say, perhaps necessary in terms of giving a film coherence and structure. I’d say it was further necessitated by the film’s aesthetics which were otherwise slightly disorienting – Heathcliff became the “hook” for the audience to focus on. I’m not all that familiar with other WH films, and wonder if the Nelly/ Lockwood framing is ever used? I haven’t seen the Fukunaga Jane Eyre yet, but imagine it’s that similar need to follow the story rather than the narrative structure.

    23 Feb 2012, 22:46

  3. Kenneth Brewer

    Fukunaga argued in interviews-rightly-that the St. John Rivers section is always short-changed in film versions, rushed through. His version still doesn’t do it justice, though, despite starting with it. My students, who on the whole liked the movie a lot, also thought that this film would be incomprehensible to someone who hasn’t read the novel (so rearranging the plot via flashbacks, they felt, is actually very disorienting), and I agreed that it’s the first feature film version to seem to assume viewers are familiar with the novel/other film versions/at least the story. I’m guessing that this WH doesn’t assume such knowledge, given that there haven’t been nearly as many film adaptations and that the novel is probably taught/read less than Jane Eyre.

    24 Feb 2012, 04:39

  4. Sarah Halford
    I think you have hit on a fundamental problem, for me, with the racial dynamics of this film when you say, absolutely rightly, that 19th-century discourses homogenised all ‘others’ as coded black. I felt that making Heathcliff definitively ‘African’, as readings such as Christopher Heywood’s (2002) have done earlier, severely reduces the complexity of both Victorian attidudes to race and Bronte’s engagement with them. Insisting he is African (as you note, ‘African’ origins was never mentioned in the text itself) wilfully ignores Bronte’s deliberate blurring of ‘race’, which in this film can only mean ‘blackness’ and, furthermore, ‘race’ in this context is firmly linked to (and reduced to) a specifically abolition context (as with the addition of “nigger” to the dialogue). Heathcliff must remain racially ambiguous for a host of important reasons, not least because this is vital to his menacing of safely identifiable categories of all kinds. As African, for instance, he is no longer a ‘problem’ for post-abolition Victorians, since they could be complacent about their having ‘solved’ this issue and in so doing proved their progressive and enlightened attitudes to race, leaving, as Bronte points out, the marginalisation and brutalisation of all other ‘others’ unquestioned. The fact that the film only deals with the first half of the novel also compounds this reductionism, since in the second half it is ‘whiteness’ that comes to the fore of Bronte’s engagement with race (similarly a problem with Meyer’s reading of Heathcliff as straightforwardly ‘black’). I haven’t seen all of the Wuthering Heights films but the only one that comes close to engaging with the complexities of the novel (also the only one that treats both halves) is the one starring Ralph Fiennes as Heathcliff: race is not foregrounded explicitly as an issue but is referenced obliquely by the fact that the dark haired Catherine senior becomes blonde Cathy junior in the second half (both played by Juliette Binoche).

    25 Apr 2012, 14:42

  5. Charlotte Mathieson

    I agree this does simplify the complexity and dynamics of the racial discourses within the text and c19th more widely, and you’re much more informed on these debates than I am so thanks for commenting on this. But I also felt that it was useful in quite directly bringing to the fore elements of the text that have typically been more neglected from other films (and, as a result, wider cultural reception of the novel/film) and even if not entirely successfully, sparking some wider discussion around this area of a text which has typically been viewed in quite set ways (romantic, windswept moors etc). I wasn’t sure the film did make him definitively African though? Although the viewer would initially read him as such, the film retained the lines of uncertainty over his origins, and I felt that played on the distinction between viewer’s and character’s interpretations of Heathcliff, again opening up ideas around race as a shifting and contextual category. Ultimately the interpretation was limited in this respect because it does have to pin down Heathcliff when that ambivalence is the most interesting aspect of the novel, and it would be interesting to see a film do more to draw out that complexity. I must watch this again though, there’s a few points you mentioned that I’d forgotten all about.

    25 Apr 2012, 22:21

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