Truly, Madly, Deeply, by David Bax
In many cases, when a filmmaker is attempting to breathe new life into a classic, he or she will do so by updating the setting to a contemporary time (Clueless, William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Andrea Arnold, director of Fish Tank, seems to have followed suit, to some extent, in her adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Though the film does not take place in the current age, it would appear to be more recent than the late 18th/early 19th century era of the novel. That is only a minor detail, though. She has more radically altered the source material in two chief ways. First, she has made her Heathcliff black (a change that has more than just cosmetic repercussions in the telling). Secondly, she has made deliberate formalistic decisions that keep her film both rooted in the classics and far out on the avant garde. These choices also make Wuthering Heights an astounding and captivating cinematic experience.
For those unable to locate their copy of the Cliffs Notes from high school, here’s a quick outline of the story. A boy named Heathcliff comes to live with the Earnshaw family at their estate, called Wuthering Heights in the book and unnamed in this film. He and the clan’s daughter, Catherine, develop a passionate young romance that will only grow within him (and perhaps within her as well) as childhood becomes adulthood.
Right away, you should know that the film is photographed and presented in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (meaning the shape of your old TV and the way all movies looked before the mid-1950’s). It’s a conspicuous choice but one that is almost immediately justified. Arnold shoots mostly in one form of close-up or another, not just on faces but on pieces of furniture, mounds of dirt and a tree branch scraping against a window in a gale. Despite her story unfolding in a breathtakingly beautiful part of Britain, there are very few shots of grand vistas or sunrises over the rolling hills. This immediate and unflinching approach is mirrored in the sound design. The rustling of clothing, footsteps on uneven wooden floors and that unceasing, rushing, screaming wind are far louder than our cinematically sophisticated ears are conditioned to expect. Especially that roaring wind.
These touches, necessarily heavy-handed, actually reveal much about Heathcliff. He is quick to fall in pure, mad love with Catherine when she takes a liking to him. Their frantic courtship is almost brutal in its eroticism. Yet he is equally quick to explode in anger at any slight and just as slow to forgive. He has no emotional filter. He is unable to experience the world in any way except all at once and with all the pain and beauty that it delivers. Heathcliff can no more temper his own receipt of life than Arnold can compress the sound of the wind.
Despite the constant sensory stimulation and formal aggressiveness, there are still practical matters of adapting a novel that upset Arnold’s bold concoction. Since there is a gap in time between Heathcliff’s departure from and return to Wuthering Heights, the actors playing him and Catherine must be swapped out halfway through. The older performers aren’t really lacking but the attachment to the two young leads has become so strong that the film never really recovers from their absence. Also, while the book can keep things moving with a gradually developing look into a character’s mind, the movie is forced to put Heathcliff into essentially the same emotional place for the final 20-25 minutes and his sturm und drang begins to be repetitive.
Yet perhaps we’re supposed to be annoyed by Heathcliff in the end. One clear thing the film reveals is that his devotion to Catherine does not stem from altruism or even any considerable amount of compassion for her. He acts out of a selfish, almost compulsive, desire to keep himself feeling good. For that depressingly tragic reason, the film is all the more heartbreaking.