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