Toronto 2011: ‘Wuthering Heights’ reenvisions a classic


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Following its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival and subsequent appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival, Andrea Arnold’s atmospheric adaptation of ‘Wuthering Heights’ quickly became a movie many were talking about. It has gathered supporters and detractors in seemingly equal numbers.

Responding to her daring take on Emily Bronte’s classic novel -- Arnold covers only the first half of the book -- some regarded the film as lugubrious and formless, while others found themselves in thrall to what they saw as its bold spell. As Arnold herself mentioned in a Q&A following the North American premiere during Toronto’s first weekend, she put back in ‘all the pain and violence and spit and blood’ missing from many adaptations.


She also said that she had not watched any previous films made from the story -- most notably the 1939 version with Laurence Olivier in the male lead of Heathcliff. Arnold structures her film so that it cleaves cleanly in half. In the first section, young Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) is taken in by a farming family and over time he and Cathy (Shannon Beer) bond as more than siblings if only tentatively as lovers. After abruptly leaving in a jealous fit, Heathcliff (now played by the roguish, brooding James Howson) returns some five years later with money, a fierce attitude and the new determination to win Cathy (Kaya Scodelario).

After the film’s first Toronto screening, Arnold sat down for a few moments to talk about her film.

With a feisty, youthful energy, the 50-year-old Arnold said it was the Heathcliff character who drew her to ‘Wuthering Heights.’

‘The way he’s treated as a kid and the way he turns out and all the brutality he suffers’ are what were interesting, Arnold said. ‘I read the book years ago, and it had a profound effect on me. It’s a confounding book, really. It became quite an obsession. I just couldn’t let it go.’

On the surface, her biggest alteration from previous tellings of the story is her decision to cast black actors in the role of Heathcliff. She insists, however, that it is not as much of a change as it might seem.

‘I think the only reason people are surprised is they’ve just seen white Heathcliffs all the time and I don’t think anyone’s really concentrated on the text,’ Arnold added, noting that his descriptions in the book make reference to Heathcliff appearing like a gypsy or Indian sailor. ‘I decided that’s really where the truth was, what really mattered was his difference, his exoticness. That was mainly what I thought was really important.’


Arnold’s previous features (‘Red Road’ and ‘Fish Tank’ as well as her 2004 Oscar-winning short ‘Wasp’) were all contemporary-set films that featured a crackling sense of immediacy and the now. Applying the same tactics to a period story creates something more vibrant and alive than a typical tale of corsetry and manners. ‘When I started writing, I went up to Yorkshire. I just wanted to walk about the moors and just sort of feel it,’ said Arnold, ‘and I saw this lad walking down the street, and he was wearing a hoodie, and I just thought, ‘Oh, he’s Heathcliff.’ He was walking along a dry stone wall which had been there for ages, and there was something about the old and the new, I just thought, ‘Oh, that’s good.’

‘And I started writing, Heathcliff arriving in a car, the house is on the moors, but it’s a modern house, Hindley’s got a motorbike instead of a horse. Then I was reading the book again, and I suddenly had the huge feeling that Emily Bronte was making, the more I got to know it, quite a complaint about how it was to be a girl in those times, and then I suddenly felt that making it contemporary was wrong and that didn’t honor a really important thing in what she was writing. I felt that would do a disservice to her, so I thought, no, it has to be set in the past.’

The film won the prize for best cinematography at Venice, recognizing Robbie Ryan’s unconventional, hand-held camera work. Arnold’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ was also picked up for American distribution out of Toronto by Oscilloscope Laboratories, which plans to release the film in 2012.


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-- Mark Olsen