I actually liked Andrea Arnold’s 2012 film of Wuthering Heights. No one could be more surprised by that than me. But in the use of a black Heathcliff does it lose more than it gains?
Wuthering Heights has been notoriously difficult to film in the past. Versions that concentrate too much on the plot become overly complex at the expense of the passions and the setting, while films that get the despair and the longing over-simplify the story. Whichever way the film-maker chooses to go there is the danger of making a film that is far too long and slow.
Arnold, I believe, succeeds in making a film that is also minimalist and evokes much emotion with little action or dialogue. It duly suffers the consequences as well as it is too long and too slow. I did not mind this until the last quarter of the film where it all caught up with me and I wanted it to end swiftly, which is not the desired effect at a time when the story is climaxing. At 129 minutes, it isn’t actually an excessively long film. Even so, you certainly feel every minute and I think I had more patience than most for this film.
One could, with a little cynicism, say that the experience of viewing this film is fitting for a story of repressed characters who do not say what they feel and do not do as they want and subsequently suffer the consequences of assuming what the other feels and means.
Arnold’s best achievement of this film lies in evoking the silent character of the novel – the landscape. Harsh, rugged and rustic, it is brought to life very well in the numerous foggy and rainy scenes and the time Catherine and Heathcliff spend alone exposed to the prevailing gusts. We experience the naked violence of both man and nature in frequent glimpses of animal cruelty as well as open-air love-making and birth-giving.
One thing I did not care for was the cinematography. The shaky-POV-camera just seemed very art-house-cliché, very film-student and it was overused. Several times, we switch from a dark scene in the depths of night to a bright foggy morning, which made me want to groan with stinging eyes at every occurrence. Many of the techniques utilised in the film were repetitive and became tiresome towards the end.
The most controversial aspect of Arnold’s film is the use of a black Heathcliff
In the novel Heathcliff’s ethnicity is not known; he is described as being ‘dark-skinned’ and ‘gypsy in aspect’. It should be remembered that in the mid-nineteenth century a description like ‘dark-skinned’ included a lot more ethnicities than it does today. Mediterranean Europeans – Spaniards, Italians and Greeks – for instance, were not considered ‘white’.
The Heathcliff of the novel is an outsider, his low birth gives him no freedom to pursue his desires. But in this film the prejudice against Heathcliff is made explicitly racist.
I have mixed feelings about this. On one hand it has made the story more accessible. It allows for the brutal treatment of Heathcliff to have greater impact via the racial slurs that are levelled against him. On reflection however, those who might have been most influenced by such accessibility and impact probably wouldn’t bother to see this film. And, in the use of a black Heathcliff, the prejudice becomes oversimplified as it can be easily explained away as racism, when the prejudice in the novel is subtle, complex and as unfathomable as, in a perfect world, racism should be.
But then again, at the time it was written was the prejudice towards Heathcliff as unfathomable as it appears to modern eyes? Is it at all necessary to alter? I am writing this while watching an old episode of The Sopranos and am reminded that the distinction between Northern and Southern Europeans (and the distinction amongst North American descendants of both) still exists.
I am still undecided.
Just to be absolutely clear; I am not suggesting that Heathcliff – a fictional character – should not be played by a black actor. He can be played by whoever. Nor am I saying that writers can’t adapt a story with a particular focus; this is often inevitable and sometimes even an unintentional consequence of adaptation. All I am saying is that the combination of casting and adaptation means that an important aspect of the original – the prejudice towards Heathcliff – has gone from complex to simple and that has both pros and cons.
Overall, this attempt at Wuthering Heights is not terrible. It’s alright, I would not watch it again though. It could have been much more if its length had been pruned more severely in the editing, if the filming had been less clichéd and more innovative and, by doing these, if the main point of discussion had been reduced to debate over the casting of Heathcliff.