Indie Roundup: ‘Wuthering Heights’ director Andrea Arnold talks about Emily Bronte, visceral filmmaking, and sheep poo
Photo: Oscilloscope Pictures
Back when I first read the book, as a callow, overcaffeinated youth in suburban Ohio, I had trouble connecting with it. When I told Arnold this just prior to my interview with her, she quipped, "Most men don't like the book. It's very feminine." While I'm not sure if that generalization holds true, this movie did immediately crystallize all the tension and seething fury and passion of Bronte's work. The film has little in common with decorous Masterpiece Theater-esque treatments we've come to expect from cinematic literary adaptations. Arnold strips away much of Bronte's windy exposition and portrays the world of early-19th-century Yorkshire in stark, visceral terms.
At one point, a pubescent Catherine and Heathcliff troll the moors looking for feathers. Arnold shoots the scene with a handheld camera that lingers on their finds, filming them in such a way that you feel like you can almost touch them. Throughout the film, she masterfully evokes the sounds, sights, and rhythms of preindustrial Britain. The past as imagined by Arnold (probably accurately) was a grubby, brutal place. This is one movie where you might be grateful that Smell-o-rama never took off.
The other striking thing about the movie is that Heathcliff is played by black actors. While this decision is justified in Bronte's book -- she describes him as alternately like a Gypsy or as a Lascar (an Indian sailor) -- no other film adaptation that I can think of pushes Heathcliff's racial difference as far as this move. This Heathcliff doesn't bear much resemblance to Sir Laurence Olivier.
When I talked to Arnold the other day, she seemed like both a person with a deep interest in Bronte's book and someone vaguely apologetic for taking on a project with such obvious ambition.
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Jonathan Crow: How did you get involved with this film?
Andrea Arnold: I was in the middle of writing something else, and I got an email from my agent asking if I'd be interested in directing "Wuthering Heights." I'd had a thing for the book since I read it when I was 18 or 19. It's a very profound book and a bit strange, troubled, and brutal, masochistic and doesn't quite add up. It's not a traditional love story, which I think everyone is led to believe it's going to be. It really isn't. I didn't know quite what I was going to do and how I was going to do it, but I just sort of let it in because of my fascination with the book, because I didn't think the book was very easy, and it seemed like a challenge. On some levels, it's a really stupid thing to do, isn't it? It's not exactly a good career move to pick a really, really famous classic -- one of the most classic books of all time -- and tackle it. It's kind of a dumb thing to do, but it was like I couldn't help it. I just decided.