One of my favourite passages about Wuthering Heights is in Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s when Holly Golightly quotes Wuthering Heights: “My wild sweet Cathy”, to which the narrator replies “”oh” with a shameful, rising inflection, “The movie.”. Golightly cannot be condemned for mistaking the plot of William Wyler‘s 1939 adaption for the actual novel on which it is based. Over 100 years since its publication, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights lives a healthy cultural afterlife, despite being for the most part, entirely misunderstood and misrepresented. Its multifaceted nature has condemned it; directors have often struggled to incorporate the novel’s multiple narratives, and so it became a half-told, half-hearted story.
Thus enters the most recent take on Brontë’s work: Andrea Arnold‘s 2011 adaptation, disrupting the simplistic narrative of two lovers torn apart by tragic circumstances. Heathcliff (James Howson) and Cathy’s (Kaya Scodelario) love is violent and tinged with all things bitter, painful, heavy and raw; most notably, it is not lightened by romantic prose and soft sighs of endearment. Rather, it highlights the innate cruelty of their relationship, coming to fully embody the contradictory crux with which Brontë wrote their relationship: “I wish I could hold you,” she [Cathy] continued bitterly, “till we were both dead!” Howson’s Heathcliff is rough and almost exuding frenetic energy, Scodelario’s Cathy is hardened and overemotional. Together, they work as two halves of one intoxicating whole: the push-pull of their frayed but electric relation feels tangible and devastating.
However, Arnold also makes the point of including a small sense of innocence within her adaptation reminiscent of her debut, Fish Tank. By including small moments of childhood joy- playing, laughing, crying, interacting with childish glee at the same landscape that has torn their ancestors apart, Arnold imbues Wuthering Heights with a larger sense of loss. Loss both of that innocence and the love that is needed to foster it. By doing so, the gradual dissolution of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship become even more poignant.
Previous adaptations make use of wide panning shots, heightening the sense of wilderness and vastness of the moors. Arnold, however, utilizes the aspect ratio 1.33:1, creating a sense of claustrophobia and a tension to Brontë’s work that has never formally been experimented with on screen. Cinema becomes a place of gloomy hues and embodies the cruel nature with which the characters treat one another.
Admittedly, if you’re looking for something to cosy up to with your significant other this Valentine’s Day, Arnold’s version of the classic tale may not be your best bet. It’s definitely not a love story for optimists, nor is it much of a love story at all, rather than a story about love (if you can even call it that, but ‘toxic codependency’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it). But if you’re not celebrating Valentine’s Day for whatever reason, or you just want a good film to watch on a cold February night, Wuthering Heights is a great way to spend an evening. From the mysterious but dreamy scenery to some good performances and all around stellar directing from Arnold, it’s a cinematic gem that often gets left out of conversation when we talk about period pieces.