Not counting Twilight, Emily Bronte's 1847 novel, Wuthering Heights, has been plundered, adapted and remade to death, including, it's not commonly known, by Luis Bunuel and Jacques Rivette. Most people know the book through movies, television miniseries, or even from the hilarious Monty Python semaphore version.
For British women of a certain age, though, the definitive source is the novel itself. The book was required reading on the post-World War II national high school curriculum, which is how Wuthering Heights got to be the nearest thing to a bodice-ripper I read in my teens, all the more alluring because I could read it right under the noses of parents and teachers. Beneath all the heavyweight prose lay a hot tale of doomed love across the tracks between an upwardly mobile country girl and the dark-skinned boy who enters her unhappy family.
When English filmmaker Andrea Arnold was asked to direct yet another version of Wuthering Heights, she went straight to the novel, looking to distill its essence rather than make a faithful period piece. The resulting provocation is a startlingly de-glamorized blend of hyper-realism and experimental art film, a fable of race and class, and a love story whose romance expresses itself in outsider fellow-feeling and vengeful brutality.
Arnold's work always leans to the atmospheric dark side. Her award-winning short film Wasp harks back to a difficult childhood on a housing project in Dartford, Kent, where she was raised by a single mother of four. She won an OBE for her work on the voyeuristic Red Road and the grimly realist Fish Tank.
In person the 51-year-old Arnold, a former TV actress and presenter, is a warm, lively, funny blonde in a knit cap and jeans, and she's full of mischievous backtalk delivered in a low whiskey rasp. She spoke about Wuthering Heights at a fancy hotel in Los Angeles.
Q: How did you come to Wuthering Heights?
A: I've got no education. I don't know about the Brontes. To this day I've never read Jane Eyre. I watched a lot of old films on television, including the 1939 William Wyler Wuthering Heights, with my Nan and Granddad in Kent as a kid. Because of all the adaptations, I was expecting the book, which I read in my late teens, to be a traditional love story. It's really a dark book and quite troubling. When I got asked to direct it, I knew it was a bit of a stupid thing to do, because it's such a famous and difficult book and there have been so many adaptations. People keep trying to have a go at that, but the book survives all of that. It's its own beast. We should probably leave it alone.
Q: Yours is a very physical take. It's beautiful, but the distance between animals and humans is quite narrow: Cathy licks Heathcliff's wounds; they're very physical with each other; there's a lot of wind and weather.
A: I had a list of words that I gave to my crew for what I wanted the film to look like. The main ones were visceral, animal and raw. Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship is quite difficult, and some relationships are based on cruelty. Nature's quite selfish, and it can be quite brutal and cruel as well as benign and beautiful, but its main mission is to keep going.
Whenever I get fed up with life I love to go wandering in nature. I grew up on a housing estate, but it was surrounded by countryside, chalk pits and so on. I found great comfort in that. The moors around Emily's Bronte's actual house are very beautiful and undulating, like being on the ocean. But that area's been quite built up now, so we had to go farther north, where the moors are more dramatic. I've not used a score in any of my films so far. I wanted the sounds to come from the nature and animals that we were filming. I was very curious to see what life sounded like before the sounds of electricity.
Q: This is very much an indie film. You cast schoolchildren to play Cathy and Heathcliff as children, and you use a hand-held camera. Who's your ideal audience?
A: God, you know, I never think about that. When I see films, I think that if they're thinking of me, I can feel them manipulating me, and I don't like it. People like it if you don't pander to what they think is coming, but you're trying to say something; it may be dark and difficult, but it's from your heart.
Q: This film could be read as a fable about race and class, both of which are ground into the very fabric of English film, but they may be tougher for American audiences. To me Heathcliff has always been a gypsy. Why choose black actors to play him?
A: In the book it was clear he wasn't white-skinned. I felt that Emily was not committing exactly; she was playing with her own difference as a female. Heathcliff's difference creates a lot of anger, especially from Cathy's brother Hindley, and that's why Heathcliff gets brutalized. They put cocoa powder on [Laurence] Olivier, which was ridiculous. Merle Oberon had Asian blood, which she had to hide to work in Hollywood. And the Romany gypsies were originally from Asia, I found. There's also this suggestion that he was taken from Liverpool, which had a massive slave trade at the time.
Q: One of the things that attracted me about Wuthering Heights was Heathcliff's unavailability. It's always seemed to me that the Brontes and Jane Austen pioneered the basic premise of the romance novel — the tall, dark stranger who at first seems remote and cold, like Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. The woman gets to him in the way that so many women can't get to unavailable men. I felt that in your film too, Cathy gets to him, but this love will never work.
A: In a way he's not very sexual. He's quite androgynous, actually. It was in some ways a sadomasochistic relationship, and such relationships exist. I found it quite draining, and I cried a lot when I wrote the script; it was a hard thing to live through. I still don't have peace with it. There is sexuality in the book, but underlying it is something far more complicated about women. Heathcliff represents something male in women, and that's why they don't get to do the sex thing. When he has a child, that child is quite sickly. I think Emily's playing with some kind of dark side of herself, and that's why she's not going to let them get together.
Q: Well, they do in a way, maybe through necrophilia.
A: (raises eyebrows in mock astonishment): I don't know what went on there. I've no idea. Actually, this made me cry, because I feel he gets to touch her in a way he didn't when she was alive. Longing is an important word to me in the film. Longing, and belonging.
Q: How do you think Emily would like this film?
A: I'm not an expert on Emily, but I came to feel, what an amazing thing that she wrote that book, because at the time women couldn't say anything about their feelings, and they got married often at puberty. So much of the book is metaphors for being female at that time, and I don't know if she was aware of it. I find it fascinating that any woman who has a baby dies in the book. I think that's Emily's fear of getting married off. It's like Emily's scared of the puberty thing and the baby thing.
I think it's a really feminist and feminine book in that way. That's why women are attracted to it. A lot of men don't like Wuthering Heights. There are lots of allusions in the book and the film to wings being ripped off, and feathers — the baby has feather stuck on his fingers. When Edgar arrives and Heathcliff's locked up, Cathy loses her freedom.
Q: You were moving away from muslin-and-bonnets cinema. Hindley looks and talks like a skinhead, your dialogue is very modern, and we don't exactly know what period this is.
A: Yes, I did have one rule that there was not to be a single bonnet in the film. I said to the costume designer, if I see a single bonnet you're all going to be sacked.
Q: Who are your influences in film?
A: I don't know about influence. I try to go my own way. A lot of people, really. I really like filmmakers who are brave and tell their own things, really, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Tarkovsky, Antonioni. I discovered Agnes Varda recently, she's fantastic; her films are so female. I'm a fan of Lynne Ramsay.
I'm fascinated with what an audience will take away from an image. Bresson said something like, "A look in the eye can start a war," and it's true. In cinema, with a great big screen you can do very little, and it means such a lot.
Q: What's your next project?
A: Oh, God, not an adaptation for sure. Son of Teletubby. Jaws 20. Maybe a Carry On film set in the jungle. Something frivolous.
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.