Literary one-hit wonder Emily Brontë’s doomed-love classic Wuthering Heights has been adapted countless times—by William Wyler and Luis Buñuel, on MTV, even in Semaphore for a Monty Python sketch. But it has never before been done as frame-for-frame gorgeously and earthily as by celebrated British auteur Andrea Arnold. The Red Road and Fish Tank director’s boldly immersive new version, shot in the Yorkshire moors with a scrupulous attention to detail (Catherine’s unshaved armpits!), is as elemental in its sensory impressionism as it is in its aching emotion. I spoke with Arnold about her first and—according to her—last adaptation.
Prior to this endeavor, did you have any relationship with the Brontë novel? When I was small, I saw the famous Laurence Olivier film with my mum and granddad. I must have been eight or nine, and I remember thinking about it for days and feeling a bit disturbed. In my teens or early twenties, I decided I was going to read it, expecting this traditional love story. But it was much more dark and complex, one of those things that will always hold a fascination because no one can master its wildness and refusal to be harnessed.
Why did you omit the second-generation romance from the original story? You’re never, ever going to capture a book so rich in all its details. You have to make an awful lot of compromises unless it’s a six-hour film. I cared most about the childhood element because it was important for Heathcliff, the thing he tries to capture. That is the place he was happy, and there’s something very human about that. All of us probably have a yearning to go back to a time when things seemed more straightforward. I don’t think I was as lucid as that, to be honest. All I did was try and capture an essence.
You and cinematographer Robbie Ryan shoot with a similar claustrophobic aesthetic to Fish Tank—many handheld close-ups and a full-frame aspect ratio. I’m obsessed with that ratio; I don’t know why. All my stories tend to focus on a single person, and that particular framing gives real respect to one person, like a Polaroid. It’s also the shape of a 35mm negative, and there’s something nice and truthful about not cutting [the image]. Up there with all the grass, if we go wide, it’s going to look very green. Whereas with the 4:3 ratio, you get more height and sky—a different way of seeing the world. But that’s me trying to justify it, really. I just love it, and my instinct is my reasoning.
This is the first time a black actor has been cast as Heathcliff. When I read all his descriptions, I felt it was quite clear he wasn’t white-skinned, and wondered why people hadn’t done it before. He gets described as a little lascar, which means “Indian seaman.” Nelly says something like “Was your mother an Indian princess and your father a Chinese emperor?” He’s described as a gypsy a couple of times, and I think the Romany gypsies were originally from Asia.
So why didn’t you hire an Asian actor? We did start looking to cast somebody like that, but then I realized that what was really important was his difference, not the actor we choose. Emily Brontë felt different, and I think Heathcliff is really Emily. People say: “You’re a woman. Why did you choose to do Heathcliff’s point of view?” In a way, it is a woman’s point of view.
Wuthering Heights opens October 5, Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, filmforum.org