If you were to glance at the Amazon reviews for Andrea Arnold’s 2011 adaptation of Wuthering Heights you would find a storm of one-star reviews. Most of the ire seems to come from fans of Emily Brontë’s original novel, who hate the fact that Arnold doesn’t care about being faithful to the source material. Make no mistake: when it comes to plot, Andrea Arnold keeps the basic framework intact but ultimately goes in her own direction. Nevertheless, there’s still a nasty undercurrent that lurks beneath the Amazon reviews. Gunnhildur Baldursdottir dismisses the casting of Solomon Glave and James Howson as an “utterly cheap attempt at originality by casting a black Heathcliff.”
Beyond racism, the critical bashing from the public is due to Andrea Arnold’s subversion of expectations surrounding the British costume drama, a genre which is seen as a safe bet for awards prestige and cultural export. Rather than attempting to bring Brontë’s novel to the screen, Arnold uses the source material as a starting point to offer a more personal vision.
Far from being a “cheap attempt at originality”, the casting of a black Heathcliff is relevant to Arnold’s theme of social hierarchy. In the early 19th century setting of the novel, when the Atlantic slave trade was still very much a reality, Heathcliff is in an utterly powerless position at the beginning of the film. The constant racial abuse from the boorish Hindley reinforces the hopelessness of Heathcliff’s situation.
It would make sense then that Cathy and Heathcliff would be drawn to each other, as society makes them both powerless – he because of his race and she because of her gender. Add to that their status as working-class children at a time when child labour was the norm, and it’s no surprise that they fall in love. Arnold demonstrates the shared attraction through their riding of a horse. She uses extreme closeups that emphasise the act of touching the horse.
Her use of this imagery reveals her sophistication as a filmmaker: cutting between the horse’s mane and Catherine’s flowing hair, Arnold suggests the riding of the horse is transformative and liberating. At the same time, the shot of Cathy’s hair possesses another level of significance because it’s from Heathcliff’s perspective. Her hair flutters in the lens of the camera, suggesting that it’s getting in his eyes, again engaging the audience’s sense of touch.
By embedding their childhood love in the sensuous, Arnold offers a contrast with the wealthier Linton household. Their comfortable life is introduced to the audience through Heathcliff and Cathy’s perspective when they sneak onto the Linton grounds at night. The interior of the Lintons enjoying themselves is seen through the window, a distorting lens that cuts off sensation. The significance of the window is twofold. Firstly, it defamiliarises the usual tropes associated with costume drama – the ravishing costumes and posh dialogue. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the warmth of the orange lighting associated with the house in this introductory scene makes it easy to understand why Catherine would be drawn to this life. The contrast between her and Heathcliff’s cold outside, and the warmth of the Linton interior, demonstrates again how Arnold uses sensation to express theme.
Significantly, after Cathy marries Edgar, the Linton house is shot in the same cold hues as the rest of the moors. Catherine’s belief in social mobility as a means to achieve happiness is shown to be illusory. Meanwhile, Heathcliff perverts their substantive relationship, as symbolised by the sensuously-shot horse-riding scene, by hanging a dog. Many of the Amazon reviews took issue with this scene for its cruelty, but more so for making the hanging as explicit as possible. It’s not just for shock, though: by showing the animal’s extreme pain, this moment offers a contrast to the other animal-centric scene of horse-riding. That tender memory is now sullied by the sensation of mortal agony, and the scene demonstrates how Heathcliff’s destructive need for vengeance consumes that which he once held so dear.
The typical costume drama usually conveys its themes through dialogue rather than these primal sensations. Characters are often filmed in static medium shots to show off the work of costume designers, as well as the locations of country houses and estates – perhaps the occasional closeup to highlight a dramatic moment and capture the anguished expression of a trained English Rose.
In contrast, Arnold relies on shaky closeups that emphasise sensory experience, and deny the viewer the sense of romantic escape to a fictional past that most of these films implicitly offer. The faces of Arnold’s (often untrained) actors are obscured, whether by naturalistic low-lighting or by being shot from behind. In this way, Andrea Arnold carves out her own interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Not only does it criticise the costume drama as a vehicle for white, middle-class hegemony, it communicates the characters’ inner drama by utilising the power of cinema, rather than remaining subordinate to the original novel.