There are iconic lovers that seem to capture something of the nature of love; Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Jack and Rose, but none cut through the sentimentality and slush quite like Cathy and Heathcliff. These two have always been the wild and untameable beasts of the moors who in each other find an obsessive and dizzying equal that cannot be contained. Emily Bronte’s classic novel has faced countless adaptations and now it faces another, in the capable hands of Andrea Arnold. This is gothic love, without the fluff and sweetness of Hollywood rom-coms; these are hard, raw, real characters, who for me come the closest to representing the dark underbelly of our sweetest intentions. This is perhaps why it is one of my favourite romantic novels, and why it endures today, as a simple tale that packs a profound punch.
Arnold has made some interesting choices with her adaptation, the most obvious one being her
decision to cast Solomon Glave and James Howson as her leading man in both his childlike and fully grown forms. Initially, I had my doubts about this. This was not the Heathcliff I envisioned, and it seemed to make the dubious and vague nature of Heathcliffs ethnicity in the book stark and startling. It added a racial motive for me, which did not colour the books (pardon the pun). This isn’t Othello. It also gives Arnold the excuse to throw in the N word (as well as the C word and a few others), which for me felt like adding a spark of controversy for the sake of it, and did not suit the setting. I never envisioned the characters as saints, but the ‘effing and blinding’, did not suit my idyllic, picturesque vision of Bronte’s Yorkshire. Any objections I might have had to the choice of lead actors evaporated when the chemistry between the characters became apparent.
I don’t envy the person whose job it was to cast Cathy and Heathcliff. They have perhaps, the most insistent, passionate and all-consuming chemistry of all – not an easy thing to find and create between two actors. Nonetheless Arnold manages it, by pairing the striking Glave with mischievous Shannon Beer, as the two frolic as children. In adulthood, Howson reunites with Kaya Scodelario (only after a few scenes did I manage to place her face – its only Effy from SKINS!). Arnold is known for recruiting unknown talents and I believe Glave will emerge as one; he has a quiet, simmering intensity and a very memorable face. At times, his delivery feels wooden and inconsequential. By contrast, Howson (not my automatic choice) grew on me slowly as the film progressed, and Kaya might just carve out a career for herself yet!
The tone of the novel is captured perfectly. Life on the moors is savage and cruel and the cinematography of the ugly and the natural reflects this. Stark, bleak, hopeless – nature courses
unbound. The camera obsesses itself with animals colliding in pairs, clear symbols of the cacophony of the combining of Cathy and Heathcliff as horses whinny, corralled by their owners, birds soar and insects gather at window panes for escape. The camera rushes at us like the wind, spinning and whirring like a lover’s homemade video footage. By running on the moor, they are flying. This is a tactile film that captures taste, feel, touch – the camera languishes through Cathy’s autumn hair, Heathcliff bites his lip, the two lock hands in the squelching mud. These scenes are for the senses. This film is like being buried alive in the earth, agonizing to some, sensuous to others, as we are pushed directly into the flame of their candle. The symbols and alludes are clear – Cathy and Heathcliff are nature and are animalised. Even the colour choices are straightforwardly simple; Cathy rides in red, Heathcliff in black, Isabella in white. Some viewers might see this as a bit of ‘directing for dummies’ – I was quite enchanted by its easy style. Cathy is shown to be air, mercurial and flighty as the wind that ravishes the moors – her hair abounds all about her and she collects feathers belonging to the birds. By contrast Heathcliff is the steady, unmoved yet volatile fire – he can only burn dependably in the grate of the home with his love.
This story has always been one of love, and the destructive potential of our passions. If the animals
of the moor reflect the vivacity of the pairs love, then they can never truly be happy with the likes of Edgar and Isabella, who represent civilized, stable, dependable love, which though consistent and loyal, can never make us feel true exhilaration. Isabella and Edgar are subordinates to Cathy and Heathcliff, but when the childhood soul mates are together, they are true equals. There are not
many love stories today that capture this sort of true, natural equality where man and woman are one another’s confidant and counterpart. In adulthood Cathy may be conditioned to be the lady of the house, but Heathcliff becomes only more and more animal. I felt the suspense of their reunion – the anticipation, barely concealed tension, the reigned in desire to possess, know, clash. Blindingly bleak, this is the slow burning tale of a love, obsession and lust that is never allowed to be, but also one of the purest friendship and acceptance. Arnold manages to be unsentimental – sleek as a knife and bustling as the wind in bringing to life this refreshing take on an old tale, saturating and intoxicating us as we sink into the mud with them. Unfortunately, this adaptation does not have the endurance of the novel and won’t be one I will watch again.
You’ll like this if:
* You like a tale that takes its time to be told i.e. Death in Venice
* You are a diehard Bronte fan
* You enjoy picking apart cinematography
You’ll hate this if:
* You are expecting Twilight
* You are expecting Titanic
* You are expecting Claire Danes and Leo