Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Jessica Hausner’s peculiar period piece Amour Fou coming to theaters, we extend our hand to other 19th-century romances.
The Victorians had a case of “the morbs,” what with their melancholy portraits of the dead and their exquisite mourning jewelry, and Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights is a perfect example of the darkest aspects of the Victorian era. Literature fiends still debate whether Jane Austen or Brontë reigns supreme over the English canon, and it’s easy to see how the lines are drawn, between Austen’s manners and dreamy Mr. Darcy and Brontë’s grim, muddy moors and heartbreak. Even Emily’s sister Charlotte was a tad on the lighter side; although Mr. Rochester is no gem, in the end, Jane Eyre still confides to us, “Reader, I married him,” as if at a slumber party.
The movie adaptations of these novels vary similarly, with Austen’s Regency era receiving the sunnier, more mainstream treatments, casting Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense And Sensibility or Gwyneth Paltrow in Emma. Colin Firth’s dreamy Mr. Darcy is even memorialized by a large statue of the actor in a filmy white button-down, rising from Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. As for the Brontës, the heroes have been played by such brutes as Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier; even putting Michael Fassbender in a Victorian nightie didn’t take the edge off of Cary Fukunaga’s exquisite adaptation of Jane Eyre, which coincidentally came out a few months before Andrea Arnold’s brutally beautiful Wuthering Heights premiered at Toronto in 2011.
Arnold’s adaptation is almost a three-dimensional experience, and purposefully unbalances the viewer with handheld cinematography that’s often nauseating in its intimacy. Director of photography and frequent Arnold collaborator Robbie Ryan plays with motion and space, sometimes peeping through keyholes and around doors secretively, or moving breathtakingly close to the characters’ faces. It’s not so much that we watch young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shannon Beer) ride a horse together, but that we are Heathcliff, and we feel and see and hear Cathy’s hair blowing in our face. Arnold filters the story through Heathcliff’s watchful gaze, and its environment reflects the casual cruelty and violence that permeates his world.
Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is also notable because this is the first time Heathcliff has ever been played by a black actor, despite the text referring to his dark skin and his adopted family referring to him as a “dark-skinned gypsy” or even an “imp of Satan,” and just generally treating him as an other in terms of race and class status. Arnold’s casting team nabbed James Howson, who plays adult Heathcliff, through sheer luck; as described by The Telegraph, Howson “spent most of his adult life on the dole or behind bars” before seeing an ad for the auditions on an unemployment-center board.
To the viewer, the moors where Heathcliff and Cathy grow up as are inhospitable, if not downright brutal, as the Essex estate of Fish Tank, where sudden bursts of violence and the uglier parts of desire are part of everyday life. Howson and Kaya Scodelario (as adult Cathy) make a formidable on-screen pair, although not an enviable one; their love affair is not just tortured but downright sadistic. By the end of the 128 minutes, it seems that they deserve each other, to the death. To Arnold’s credit, she somehow makes even their dreadfulness sublime. Like the best Goths (and goths), the filmmaker finds beauty in destructive love and despair.
Availability: Wuthering Heights is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Netflix or your local video store/library. The film can also be rented or purchased through the major digital services.