Prior to seeing Wuthering Heights, my only experience with British director Andrea Arnold was her film Fish Tank (though a quick glance at her IMDB page reveals only four feature-length films, so I’ve now seen half of her body of work).
For me, Fish Tank was slow, moody, and atypical of conventional movies. That type of pacing, atmospherics, ambiguous storyline, etc. are the kind of thing I sometimes experience as pretentiously artsy and sometimes as intriguingly different. With Fish Tank it was maybe 30% the former and 70% the latter, so more good than bad but mixed. It was the kind of movie that was a bit of a slog to get through, yet maybe reached me at a little deeper level than most movies and stayed in my mind longer than most movies.
In a very broad sense, Wuthering Heights reminds me of that same style. Its atmospherics are as attention-grabbing as anything in the film (which either speaks well of the atmospherics or poorly of the film; it’s probably some of each). I’ve rarely seen a film that is this powerfully dreary visibly. Especially in the first half, if it’s not night then it’s overcast, there’s a heavy fog, it’s barren and cold, it’s rainy and wet, etc. Utterly oppressive visuals. And the actual substance of what’s happening is rarely much cheerier. In some ways it’s not easy to watch, but, again, it’s intriguing and emotionally powerful enough to arguably be worth the effort.
The film of course is based on the classic 19th century novel by Emily Brontë. I read the book, but it was about 25 years ago and I’m embarrassed to say I remembered virtually nothing about it. Even seeing the movie didn’t bring it back to me.
I’m not just embarrassed but surprised, because even though it was quite a number of years ago, in reading more about it now after seeing the movie it seems like the kind of emotionally and psychologically powerful book that would have made a significant impression on me. And I read it for a book club, so presumably I thought it through enough after I read it to be able to engage in a discussion of it.
I suppose this is further proof of the value of writing these essays. Ever since I started writing about every movie I see and every book I read, I find that I retain material much better. Certainly I don’t remember every detail, but I rarely find that a movie or book has basically been erased from my memory, the way the novel Wuthering Heights seems to have been.
Adding to the forbidding environment of this film, and to its being sometimes difficult to follow (had I not read some things about the film and the book, I would have been even more lost) is the paucity of dialogue.
Lots of meaningful, ominous looks, facial expressions of pain and hopelessness, fog and drizzle and overall dankness, and silence.
Some of the characters barely say a word the whole movie, making their relationships with each other seem empty and inhuman, and giving the movie overall the same feeling for the viewer.
In other words, this just isn’t a world you’d want to spend much time in if you had any choice.
The story takes place in the late 1700s and just into the 1800s. The Earnshaws are a farm family consisting of the patriarch of the family Mr. Earnshaw (I don’t know that he has a first name, in the movie or the novel), his wife, and their children Hindley and Catherine.
Mr. Earnshaw is religiously devout in some sense, but it certainly doesn’t seem to give him any joy. It’s more like it randomly causes him to engage in certain behavior in a grim, dutiful, wooden way, but otherwise he just plods along through life doing what he needs to do to take care of his farm.
Mrs. Earnshaw might as well be invisible. Not that Mr. Earnshaw is all that striking a presence in the film, but I had to remind myself that there even was a Mrs. Earnshaw as it feels more like he’s a single father.
Hindley is a dick. He never manifests any particularly human qualities.
Catherine is a playful, simple sort of child. She doesn’t stand out as unusually mature or emotionally evolved for her age, but she’s not unusually bad in that regard either.
At the start of the film, Mr. Earnshaw returns home from a trip with a boy he has adopted. It’s left kind of a mystery who this kid is or why Mr. Earnshaw has brought him home with him, beyond that the child was in need and taking him in is the Christian thing to do.
Mr. Earnshaw names him Heathcliff, which seems to function as both a first and last name. That is, characters call him “Heathcliff” as you would use a first name, but when he is an adult and someone wants to address him with respect he is “Mr. Heathcliff.”
I don’t think his age is given (maybe it’s not even known), but I suppose he’s about 8. I know from cheating and looking it up on Wikipedia that Hindley would have been about 14 and Catherine about 6 upon Heathcliff’s arrival.
He is a sullen and uncommunicative child. He doesn’t seem particularly grateful to have been brought into the family. It’s not even clear what his role is, whether he is supposed to now be a full member of the family, or more of a laborer or servant. He doesn’t seem to do all that much, beyond observe the world around him with a bruised, resentful expression on his face.
Also, he’s Black. I don’t think he’s supposed to be, based on the book. I read that he is identified as a Gypsy in the novel, and that he is of a darker, more swarthy, “foreign” look that no doubt adversely affects how he is perceived and treated in this society, that there is some speculation that Brontë intended to imply that he was Black or at least left that ambiguous on purpose, but that that’s very much a minority position and most commentators take him to be simply Gypsy (or Roma) as the author says.
The filmmaker’s decision to make him Black is therefore potentially a significant departure from the book. I mean, there would be certain ill-treatment or discrimination whether a person in that place and time were Roma or Black, but presumably it wouldn’t be the same ill-treatment or discrimination.
Anyway, the family is far from thrilled with the arrival of the newcomer, nor is he thrilled to be there. But while Hindley remains antagonistic toward him, consistently verbally abusive and occasionally physically abusive, Catherine pretty quickly warms to him and they become buddies. Once in a while Heathcliff will even utter a few words to her.
Over the years, their relationship goes from being clearly just a couple of little kid playmates to some ambiguous gray area where it still has elements of that but is potentially moving toward a budding romantic or sexual relationship. Neither one has any experience with any kind of dating or sex of course, and little notion of how one is supposed to proceed, so it’s all quite awkward and uncertain. The sparse and poor quality communication doesn’t help. Matters are perhaps further complicated by the fact that, I think, they are a few years apart in age, so it’s not like they’re developing at the same pace in the same ways physically and emotionally, meaning there is a risk of emotional disconnect, intentional or unintentional exploitation, misunderstanding and disappointment, etc.
In some sense they probably end up in love, Heathcliff especially, but it’s in an undeveloped, immature way that could easily be a misinterpretation of other emotions, like childhood friendship or the rush of infatuation of first becoming conscious of the stirrings of sexual desire at a young age.
But then Heathcliff’s life—which he never is particularly happy about, though at least he has some kind of positive connection with Catherine—goes from bad to worse. Hindley, after going off to university, returns home upon the death of Mr. Earnshaw and becomes master of the house. Any ambiguity about Heathcliff’s status as a family member or servant is quickly erased, as Hindley treats him as little more than a slave.
Meanwhile, once Catherine is old enough, barely, to be courted, she becomes involved with Edgar Linton of a nearby estate. The Lintons aren’t exactly upper class themselves, but they seem to be somewhat better off than the Earnshaws. Edgar is a prissy, effete sort, maybe not quite as much of a dick as Hindley and not quite as abusive toward Heathcliff, but still a dick and still abusive toward Heathcliff.
Heathcliff is quite unhappy about the possibility of losing Catherine to Edgar, but it’s not like he’s ever openly declared his love for Catherine, expressed an intention to marry her, urged her to choose him over Edgar, etc., at least that I picked up on. I think he has more just a vague sense that there’s some kind of connection between him and Catherine and that at some level they both recognize that it would be a betrayal to marry anyone else.
Catherine maybe sees it as more ambiguous, where her relationship with Heathcliff teeters between simple childhood friendship and a potential adult love relationship without ever clearly crossing that line. And on a practical level, it’s a no brainer that marrying Edgar will constitute at least modestly marrying up, while waiting around and hoping something develops with the Black kid will not.
I think she feels, as Heathcliff does, that in some sense their relationship is the most important one of their lives, that there’s a special connection between them, but I don’t think they interpret that vague feeling the same way, or are really, at that age—especially her—capable of feeling anything really deep and understanding what that feeling is.
Heathcliff overhears Catherine speaking of her intention to accept Edgar’s offer of marriage (or actually, in reading about it later, I take it there’s some ambiguity about that and maybe he misinterprets something she says and thinks that’s what she means), and is crushed. Maybe more angry than sad, as he indignantly experiences it as just another way people shit on him at every opportunity.
Heathcliff runs away. Then the scene shifts to many years later. He is an adult now, and he returns to the Earnshaw farm apparently having made a fortune somehow that seems to have rendered him in better shape than any of the other characters. Certainly better than Hindley, who has destroyed himself with drinking and gambling and is now more of a pathetic loser than ever.
It’s left a mystery how Heathcliff made his fortune, but there’s no reason to think he scrupulously stuck to ethical means in doing so. He’s only marginally more communicative than when he was a child, but everything about his manner sends the message that his actions are very purposeful and his vision long range, that he is motivated by a fierce desire for revenge and that he will do all he needs to do step-by-step to achieve that end, where coming up with sufficient capital was the first necessary step in that process.
Through economic pressure, dishonesty, manipulation, psychological games, whatever is necessary, he proceeds to destroy and make suffer all those he felt wronged by. I was going to say he delights in causing them pain, but I don’t know that he’s capable of delighting in anything. At most there’s maybe some grim sense of satisfaction and accomplishment as he brings them down, but he’s a bitter, miserable person before he gets his revenge, and he’s a bitter, miserable person after he gets his revenge.
Really he’s a total asshole. You can have some empathy for him on the grounds that he was so mistreated (though while some of that mistreatment was real, I’d say some of it was in his head; did some woman, who was still really more child, failing to love him back the way he felt entitled to really constitute some horrible wronging of him that calls for revenge?), but in the end you’re still responsible for how you respond to mistreatment, and he responds as a total asshole.
He ends up as cruel as any sadist, but without the sadist’s ability to at least enjoy being cruel. He’s the kind of person who never develops an ability to respond to being hurt in any way other than hurting back. And even hurting people who didn’t hurt him. Like he makes it a point after he defeats Hindley and wrests the farm from him to make sure that Hindley’s little son—a simpleton who may be at least somewhat retarded—has a shitty life, even though obviously whatever Hindley or others may have done to Heathcliff, this little kid never wronged him.
But like I say, it’s not like his “success” in carrying out his revenge does him any good. He ends up as miserable as ever, and is even convinced that Catherine is haunting him.
So, the story and the characters are just about as dreary and unpleasant as the climate. I think the film is quite well done in some respects, and it has plenty of creativity and emotional heft, but it’s a close call whether I’d recommend it because it’s all so gloomy and depressing, and so slow and often difficult to make sense of (without relying on Wikipedia or other resources, as I had to).
An impressive movie, but not the kind of unpleasantness that everyone will want to subject themselves to for over two hours (which feels considerably longer).