Andrea Arnold is a director renowned for her unrelenting modernity. Set on council estates, Arnold’s first two films are about being on the outside, looking in and trying to find cracks in those protective walls that we call alienation and indifference. In her directorial debut Red Road (2006), Arnold tells the story of a CCTV operator who finds herself becoming obsessed with observing a man she happens to recognise. Now used to experiencing life through a lens, the operator follows her target into a party and dances with him. Horrified by the intense colours, sounds and sensations of reality, the operator runs from the party and vomits in a lift. Seemingly, real life was just too much for her. A similar withdrawal from the world features in Arnold’s follow-up picture Fish Tank (2009) where a teenaged girl observes her mother’s relationship with a local lothario. Initially treating this interloper as a potential father figure, the girl soon finds herself being lured into the waters of adult sexuality by waves of unexpected kindness and discrete flirting. Believing she is in control of the situation, the girl pushes harder and harder at the limits of her childhood before the complexities and inequalities of adult life threaten to overwhelm her, forcing her to withdraw to a state of adolescent seclusion where everything makes sense and lessons can be learned in relative safety.
While there is no denying that Arnold’s adaptation of Emile Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) constitutes something of a departure for the director, the film’s novelty lies not in its period setting but in the refusal of its characters to back down when confronted by a world they do not really understand. Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is a film in which madness and obsession confront reality and reality loses.
Arnold strips Wuthering Heights of its Victorian grandeur by presenting the house itself as little more than a large barn on the Yorkshire moors. While the farm may once have been profitable, it now struggles to sustain the Earnshaw family and their small cadre of servants. To speak of ‘servants’ is to conjure up images of class division but life at Wuthering Heights is so difficult and impoverished that there really is no difference between the life of a servant and that of a master. At the end of the day, everyone huddles for warmth around the same fire. Though admirable in many ways, the classlessness of life at Wuthering Heights proves problematic when Earnshaw returns home from Liverpool with a mixed-race foundling he names Heathcliff (Solomon Glave).
Seemingly aware that the gap separating his family from their servants is now pretty much non-existent, Earnshaw treats Heathcliff as an adopted son and full member of the family. Raised to expect more respect than his foundling status might otherwise accord him, Heathcliff proves to be a divisive presence in the house as Earnshaw’s daughter Catherine (Shannon Beer) comes to adore him while Earnshaw’s son Hindley (Lee Shaw) comes to loathe and despise him.
Though very much at the centre of both the novel and the film, Heathcliff is a character who is notoriously difficult to pin down. Capable of both extreme behaviour and radical reinvention, Heathcliff comes across as either a cruel, vindictive and jealous psychopath or as a Byronic hero doomed by the intense power of his own emotions. By giving him very little dialogue and steadfastly refusing to grant us much insight into his feelings and motivations, Arnold makes a difficult character all but impenetrable. Indeed, watching Arnold’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights I was struck by the fact that both hateful Hindley and adoring Cathy see exactly the same thing when they look at Heathcliff, it is just that they react differently to what it is that they see. In fact, one could even go a bit further and suggest that the elusive nature of the Heathcliff character comes from the fact that he is nothing but a mirror for the hopes and desires of other people.
The malleable nature of Heathcliff becomes obvious when Earnshaw dies and Hindley takes over the farm. Fully intent upon getting revenge upon the interloper, Hindley effectively reduces him to the status of a servant. In the novel, this reduction in status is a big deal as it effectively removes Heathcliff from the bosom of his family and places him in the grip of Joseph, the demented Christian who runs the farm. However, in the film, the difference between the two states is largely one of labelling until Cathy is injured.
The absurd and arbitrary nature of this labelling system becomes painfully obvious when Cathy is mauled by a dog and forced to stay with the nearby Linton family. Hailing from the south and possessing substantial moneys, the Lintons maintain a very clear line of demarcation between their family and their servants. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Lintons offer to look after the injured Cathy is because they feel guilty about injuring a fellow member of the landowning class. Heathcliff may well be Cathy’s social equal but his suggestion that the Lintons should “Fook off, you cunts” identifies him as nothing more than an unruly servant. Heathcliff’s ejection from the farm is downplayed by the novel but Arnold realises its importance: Suddenly class is more than just a label. Sequestered with the Lintons during her convalescence, Cathy internalises their social values to the extent that she becomes a traditional Victorian lady complete with impractical clothes and the knowledge that she needs to marry and marry well.
When Cathy returns home, Heathcliff is horrified at what she has become. Once Cathy was a child of nature much like him but now she is nothing more than a stuck up little girl playing at being sophisticated and rich. Rather than protecting Heathcliff from Hindley and helping him to regain his fraternal status, Cathy’s tacit acceptance of the Linton worldview forces Heathcliff further into the mire. When he overhears Cathy bemoaning the fact that marrying him would be demeaning, Heathcliff grabs his stuff and leaves the farm only to return a number of years later as a wealthy and successful man (played by James Howson).
When Heathcliff returns, he finds Wuthering Heights even more debased than when he left it. Having lost his wife, Hindley took to drinking and gambling to the point where he now seems like little more than a local drunkard surviving on hand outs from his former servants. His eldest son, once a beautiful blonde angel, is now a foul-mouthed runt prone to torturing animals and swearing at passers by. That such a feral child could come from a land-owning family only further confirms the toxic nature of Cathy’s classist delusions.
Cathy’s deluded nature is laid bare when Heathcliff decides to confront her. Now married to the eldest Linton, Cathy is a lady right down to her ringlets and affected accent. However, while Cathy has fully committed to life as a member of the gentry, she remains completely unsatisfied prompting her to spend so much time with Heathcliff that that her husband is soon forced to issue an ultimatum: It’s him or me. Sensing an opportunity for revenge, Heathcliff reacts to news of the ultimatum by seducing Linton’s sister thereby ensuring that, while he will always be around and ‘part of the family’, Cathy will never be able to have him. Confronted both by the object of her desire and the knowledge that she will never be able to have him, Cathy refuses to accept her situation and drives herself into a frenzy that ultimately ends her life. Faced by the corpse of his love, Heathcliff paws at the body with the glee of a necrophiliac. Incapable of accepting what it is that he has done and unwilling to let go of his desire, Heathcliff descends into his own form of madness, a madness that refuses to accept the truculence of reality.
While Arnold keeps her Heathcliff at arm’s length, her Cathy is comparatively easy to read. For Arnold, Cathy is a figure akin to Flaubert’s Emma Bovary; a naïve and simple-minded fool whose refusal to relinquish childish fantasies leads to a life dominated by self-destructive disappointment. By drawing a veil over Heathcliff’s inner state, Arnold raises the possibility that Heathcliff is nothing more than a physical manifestation of Cathy’s unquenchable desires: As a child, he is a friend to a friendless little girl. As a teenager, he is a potential lover for a curious young woman. As an adult he is the handsome and wealthy stranger who offers to take her away from a life of moneyed boredom and sexual frustration. When Cathy dies, Heathcliff is stripped of his purpose and left to roam the Earth, a creature stitched together out of a decade of misery and desire. The echo of Cathy, which appears as a ghost in the novel and a fragment of memory in the film, is a reflection of the truth about Heathcliff: He is a fading echo of another person’s desire to be something, someone and someplace else. He is frustration made flesh, a demon held together by decades of unquenchable and unreasonable desire.
Arnold’s Wuthering Heights is not an easy film to watch. Plastered with grime, stripped of dialogue and littered with Malick-style nature footage and strange performances by semi-professional actors, it is about as far as you can get from the traditional ‘heritage’ approach to adapting English literature for the screen. However, by refusing to boil Bronte’s narrative down into the confines of a simple love story or tale of social alienation, Arnold has produced a film that goes a long way towards capturing the strangeness of the source material. Indeed, many of the eccentricities of Bronte’s novel stem from the fact that she was manifestly working from a deeply idiosyncratic model of human psychology. While such terms as ‘love’, ‘obsession’ and ‘madness’ may go some way towards explaining the actions of Bronte’s characters, none of these terms fully captures what it means to be a resident of Wuthering Heights: Why does Heathcliff return? Why does he destroy Cathy rather than simply elope with her? Why does he regret his actions after committing to them so utterly? Why does he stay at Wuthering Heights after Cathy’s death? Why does Cathy frenzy herself to death? Why is everyone so demented and unreasonable?
Characters are the product of a negotiation between an author’s assumptions about how other people think and those of his audience. When an author shares their audience’s assumptions about what people think and why they do what they do then characters are smoothly engaging entities. However, when a gap emerges between the folk psychological assumptions of the author and those of the audience, the audience is forced to either decry the failure of the author’s attempts at characterisation or change the way they think about people. Books like Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are written with visions of human nature so strange and cohesive that audiences find themselves being challenged by what they read on the page. The self-destructive nature of Cathy and Heathcliff’s relationship may seem almost fantastical in its intensity but its toxicity also bears the odour of truth.
We have all been in positions when we acted without thinking or in ways that would later prompt us to marvel at our capacity for unreason. Normally, we react to such moments of madness by explaining them way as the product of ‘stress’ or emotional turmoil but one could just as easily account for them using terms such as ‘love’, ‘obsession’ and ‘alienation’. These diagnostic labels protect our conceptions of self by isolating them from the rest of our personalities… moments of madness are referred to as ‘moments of madness’ precisely because they do not fit with how we see ourselves. Characterising Cathy and Heathcliff’s romance as an ‘obsessive love affair’ rationalises that which is, by design, irrational. We diagnose and reduce the plight of Heathcliff and Cathy because we do not wish to acknowledge that their irrational actions bear the imprint of an unpalatable truth. Namely, that we are all capable of acting in a manner that is nothing short of insane.
By refusing to reduce her characters to an easily accessible series of types, Arnold has reminded us that Wuthering Heights is a novel that challenges our understanding of normal human psychology. This is a film that, much like the novel, casts us as reluctant voyeurs of the human condition. Caught on the outside looking in, we can see ourselves in the people we observe and yet we are utterly appalled and disgusted by the actions these people undertake. Of course, the things that disgust us most are the things we secretly long to do. Heathcliff and Cathy remain compelling characters because we see echoes of our madness in the minutiae of their terrible lives.