Pas­sion­ate heights

The great­est love story of all had film­maker An­drea Arnold’s head hurt­ing — and Emily Bronte fans would have it no other way, writes Stephen Applebaum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Wuther­ing Heights

AN­DREA Arnold is feel­ing a bit frag­ile, ‘‘ so for­give me’’, she says, call­ing over a pub­li­cist to ask if he can rus­tle up some­thing for her headache. We’re sit­ting in a sun­struck gar­den on Venice’s Lido, dur­ing the Venice film fes­ti­val last year, and the British writer-di­rec­tor is feel­ing the ef­fects of a party to cel­e­brate the pre­miere of her raw adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuther­ing Heights.

It is about a week since she fin­ished the sav­age drama and she makes no ef­fort to hide her re­lief. ‘‘ It was a tough film to make, I can’t tell you,’’ says the black-clad red­head, eyes hid­den be­hind sun­glasses. ‘‘ It’s been the hard­est so far, with­out a doubt.’’

And for Arnold watch­ers, ar­guably the most sur­pris­ing film the 51-year-old has made since meta­mor­phos­ing from a dancer on Top of the Pops and smi­ley chil­dren’s TV pre­sen­ter into one of Bri­tain’s most ex­cit­ing film­mak­ers, along­side Steve McQueen ( Shame) and Lynne Ram­say ( We Need to Talk About Kevin).

Her pre­vi­ous two fea­tures, Red Road and Fish Tank, were gritty re­flec­tions of mod­ern Bri­tain. The for­mer of­fered an un­bear­ably tense and sex­u­ally frank tale of re­venge set against some of Glas­gow’s grimmest ten­e­ments; the lat­ter, set on an Es­sex coun­cil es­tate, charted a 15-year-old girl’s doomed re­la­tion­ship with her mother’s charis­matic lover (played by the ubiq­ui­tous Michael Fass­ben­der). Wasp, Arnold’s early Os­car­win­ning short film about a sin­gle mother strug­gling to rear her four chil­dren in Dart­ford, Kent, where the film­maker also grew up, was equally con­tem­po­rary. Her jaunt into the dis­tant past is there­fore un­ex­pected. As was her de­ci­sion to do it via Emily Bronte’s 19th-cen­tury clas­sic, the film­maker hav­ing ap­par­ently ruled out adaptations.

Arnold doesn’t view Wuther­ing Heights as a de­par­ture, how­ever. In the book’s themes — cru­elty, un­con­trol­lable pas­sion, ob­ses­sion, free­dom and en­trap­ment — there is some over­lap with her own work. More­over, like her first two films, the new one is ten­der-tough, find­ing po­etry and beauty where oth­ers might see only bleak­ness.

Even so, ‘‘ it’s a bit of a crazy thing to do’’, Arnold ad­mits. ‘‘ A friend of mine, af­ter I said I was go­ing to do it, said, ‘ You said you would never do an adaptation. I love it that when you do, you pick only one of the most fa­mous books in the whole world. You crazy woman. You’re mad.’ ’’

Wuther­ing Heights must surely also be one of the world’s most filmed nov­els. The In­ter­net Movie Data­base lists more than a dozen cinema and tele­vi­sion adaptations, with the sat­ur­nine Heath­cliff hav­ing been em­bod­ied by the likes of Lau­rence Olivier, Ti­mothy Dal­ton and Ralph Fi­ennes. Any ac­tress es­say­ing Cathy must fol­low in the foot­steps of Merle Oberon, Claire Bloom and Juli­ette Binoche, among oth­ers.

This wasn’t go­ing to put Arnold off, though. When her agent emailed ask­ing if she would be in­ter­ested in Wuther­ing Heights, af­ter two pre­vi­ous at­tempts to make it had fallen through (Ab­bie Cor­nish was in the frame for Cathy at one point), she leapt at the chance. ‘‘ It’s a book I’ve al­ways been fas­ci­nated with. I think it is a very pro­found book that sort of con­founds ev­ery­one, and I find that very in­trigu­ing. When I heard they were mak­ing it and there was an­other di­rec­tor [John May­bury] in­volved, I was re­ally jeal­ous. I thought, ‘ I want to do that. That’s mine.’ So it was a very in­stinc­tive de­ci­sion and I just said, ‘ OK, I will do it,’ with­out re­ally un­der­stand­ing what a beast of a jour­ney it would be.’’

Be­cause of the mo­men­tum al­ready be­hind the project, Arnold had to work swiftly. She quickly re-read the novel and set about putting to­gether a script in which di­a­logue would be sec­ondary to im­ages, tex­tures, and mood.

‘‘ I wrote a sort of scene-by-scene thing and it was all pain, vi­o­lence, cru­elty and spit,’’ Arnold re­calls. ‘‘ When Rob­bie [Ryan, di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy] read it, he said it was a re­ally punk script, be­cause it had blood and spit and spunk in it. He said, ‘ You’ve got ev­ery bod­ily fluid go­ing!’ ’’ There were lots of an­i­mals, too, used, as is of­ten Arnold’s cus­tom, sym­bol­i­cally.

Na­ture in the film is both beau­ti­ful and cruel. It in­forms the char­ac­ters, and in par­tic­u­lar Heath­cliff and Cathy, who, in the first half of the film, as chil­dren, are closely iden­ti­fied with the wild­ness of the York­shire moors. ‘‘ We are an­i­mals,’’ says Arnold, ‘‘ and we have all kinds of an­i­mal be­hav­iour and thoughts. It’s all kept down, but ac­tu­ally it’s all there. I’m very in­ter­ested in na­ture and the way it con­nects with us, and also the way that it’s very self­ish and bru­tal as well.’’

Wuther­ing Heights is of­ten re­ferred to as one of the great love sto­ries, but is what the pair have re­ally love? Like the world they in­habit, their re­la­tion­ship is of­ten as cruel as it is ten­der. In one of the film’s most sur­pris­ing scenes, Cathy licks the open wounds on Heath­cliff’s back af­ter a beat­ing. Later, she presses his face into the dirt with her foot. Yet she is the only char­ac­ter who re­ally shows him any kind­ness af­ter he is brought home by her fa­ther — an­ger­ing her brother, Hind­ley — from a trip to Liver­pool.

‘‘ I think any­one would hang on to some­body that is kind to you,’’ Arnold says. ‘‘ He makes a con­nec­tion to some­body among all that bru­tal­ity and I think that could be called ob­ses­sion or love.’’ She pauses. ‘‘ Love is not a sim­ple word. Love means so many things. And the way one per­son loves is not the same as the way an­other per­son loves.’’

Arnold be­came ob­sessed with Heath­cliff and the abuse — phys­i­cal, ver­bal, emo­tional — that he suf­fered as a boy. ‘‘ That was my start­ing point, re­ally. He is very dif­fi­cult to know and I won­dered about how he turned out to be so cruel and venge­ful. But when you look at his child­hood and what hap­pened to him, and how bru­tally he is treated, it made com­plete sense to me. So I thought, ‘ I want to tell his story.’ Then I just in­stinc­tively went for the things that said some­thing to me: the ob­ses­sion, the sado­masochism, the pain.’’

She mag­ni­fied Heath­cliff’s out­sider sta­tus by cast­ing black non-ac­tors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James How­son, dis­cov­ered in a job cen­tre) ver­sions of the char­ac­ter. Al­though a first, Arnold doesn’t re­gard this as rad­i­cal. ‘‘ If you read all his de­scrip­tions in the book, he’s very dif­fer­ent and he’s very strange. He comes out of nowhere and lands in this place, and his dif­fer­ence is re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant. I’ve not done ev­ery­thing ab­so­lutely like the book, but it was very clear to me he was dark-skinned. Re­ally clear.’’

Work­ing with a largely non-pro­fes­sional cast who’d done noth­ing be­fore Wuther­ing Heights was ‘‘ tough’’, says Arnold, who of­ten car­ry­ing a heavy cam­era box on her head and she broke down in tears. A few min­utes later, she came across a fe­male col­league in the same state. ‘‘ We’d had enough,’’ she says.

This ef­fort has pro­duced a Wuther­ing Heights that is vis­ceral and ele­men­tal, and that brings Bronte’s tor­tured tale of ob­ses­sion to the screen with an im­me­di­acy not achieved by pre­vi­ous adaptations. It has a com­plex­ity that is im­pres­sive for a film taken from con­cep­tion to screen in just 18 months.

That said, Arnold, who gen­er­ally likes work­ing at a fast pace be­cause it suits her in­tu­itive ap­proach to film­mak­ing, can’t help think­ing about what might have been if she’d had more time.

‘‘ Now I’ve got to know more and more about the story, and about Emily Bronte and things, I won­der if I went back know­ing what I know now and started again, whether it would be a com­pletely dif­fer­ent film.

‘‘ I did it for the right rea­sons, for my own cu­rios­ity and to ex­plore and to grow as a film­maker. But I’ve been chang­ing my mind on it all the time.’’

Maybe it’s not just the pre­vi­ous night’s cel­e­bra­tions that are caus­ing her head to hurt. favours non-ac­tors — Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank, for in­stance — over ex­pe­ri­enced pro­fes­sion­als, be­cause of the raw­ness and hon­esty they bring to the screen. How­ever, it was her de­ci­sion to film on the York­shire moors near the Pen­nine Way that re­ally tested the stam­ina and spir­its of the cast and crew, al­most to break­ing point. Her quest for au­then­tic­ity is ev­i­dent in the mud-caked clothes and faces of the ac­tors, and in the howl­ing winds that buf­fet them.

‘‘ I was des­per­ate to go up to the moors, al­though it was so un­be­liev­ably hard film­ing there,’’ Arnold says. ‘‘ You can see it a bit in the film, but you can’t re­ally see what it meant for the crew. We couldn’t get ve­hi­cles into that area so we would have to go on a 4x4 up to a cer­tain place and then we would have to walk. And any time we wanted to do a wide shot or any­thing like that we were all car­ry­ing gear, and the mud was so deep that ev­ery time you put your foot down, your boot would go right un­der and you would have to get it out.’’

On the last week of the shoot, film­maker’s legs buck­led while she the was

Wuther­ing Heights

Heath­cliff (Solomon Glave) and Cathy (Shan­non Beer) in

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