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Thursday, 1 December 2011

Andrea Arnold's Wuthering Heights (2011) - Re Black Heathcliff & Animal Cruelty

Yet another version of Emily Bronte's 1847 novel, this one mostly notable for having a black Heathcliff - well, two black Heathcliffs as the teenage Heathcliff and his older version are played by different actors. Cue much debate about whether is an unwarranted deviation from Bronte's work. Bronte's description of Heathcliff is fairly clear, he is "a dark-skinned gypsy in aspect" (Chapter 1). Despite some arguments that have been made, he's definitely not black. That's why Nelly Dean says to him "A good heart will help you to a bonny countenance, if you were a regular black" (Chapter 7). If you were a regular black - clearly he isn't black, from this remark. Interesting though in what it implies about Nelly's attitude to blackness, as a contrast to being "bonny".

So Heathcliff is really a gypsy, but having a black actor play him sort of makes sense, as both groups would have been very much Others in Victorian society. Probably both a gypsy and a black person would be equally out of place and open to hostility and suspicion in 19th century rural Yorkshire. It certainly makes more sense than having Laurence Olivier play him, as in the classic 1939 version. Olivier was so saxon-looking, and with such polished manners, that he's pretty much the antithesis of what Heathcliff represented in Bronte's book.

It's also interesting to note this dealing with blackness in period drama in some other recent examples. In the 2008 Little Dorrit, for example, a fairly minor character named Tattycoram, maid to the Meagles family, is played by a black actress (Freema Agyeman). Her blackness is never actually referred to; nobody comments on it, or even casts her a sideways glance, though she's pretty conspicuous in the sea of whiteness that is the rest of the cast, and would have been conspicuous in the time and place the story is set. So why do we have a black Tattycoram, and why is it not explicitly dealt with? Scriptwriter Andrew Davies would probably say because it's no big deal, black actors should be able to appear in period dramas without it being justified, or being an issue in any way. Alternatively, one could see it as laziness: it's easy to make a gesture towards multi-culturalism, harder to actually deal with it in any way or theorize the place of race in period drama. Easy to drop a black actor in and say no more about it, but bask in the warm glow of "colourblind casting", harder to actually rewrite a character to take account of the different experiences he/ she would have as a black than as a white.

Arnold in Wuthering Heights does actually acknowledge Heathcliff's race; that is, she has the other characters use it as an insult against him at times. As we watch Heathcliff's experience and how others react to him, it seems reasonable that Heathcliff could have been black (though Bronte's Heathcliff definitely wasn't, just to reiterate that as some people have tried to make a case for it). So it's not colourblind casting, as race remains an issue and is acknowledged. The racial issue is assimilated into the text, unlike in Little Dorrit or the mixed-race Nancy in the 2007 BBC Oliver Twist.

Animal Cruelty

One very disturbing aspect of this film were the scenes of animal cruelty. Not the fact of them, so much as the realism. Not the realism in itself, either, but the fact they were so real that I was left asking, How did they do that? and wondering just how realistic it was. There's a sheep's throat being cut, in extreme close-up, you see his eyes rolling around, then the knife goes into his neck. There's a rabbit having his neck broken, again very close-up, again you see the rabbit's eyes moving and it's obviously a real animal, then you see its body being jerked to break the neck. There's also two scenes where you see small dogs being left hanging by their necks and yelping. In this case, you don't see them die, but the hanging looks real.

According to the British Board of Film Classification: "Assurances have been provided by the production company explaining in detail how these scenes were filmed, including detail of special effects employed, so as not to harm any of the animals involved." That's a relief, and if no animals really were harmed, you've got to  give them credit for some outstanding technical trickery, though in any case those scenes were unnecessary and tangential to the story - they're not plot, they work maybe to show how violent and sadistic Heathcliff (I can't remember if he was involved in all the animal cruelty scenes or if some of them were other characters) is, but that's pretty clear anyway. One scene showing his cruelty to animals would be maybe justified by character exposition, but four is both self-indulgent and voyeuristic. The fact that after seeing it I actually had to go and check up on the scenes I think illustrates that they were excessive, unless you really like violence against animals.

Anyway, in conclusion, the film was ok. I agree with what a lot of critics have said, that the first half with the teenage Heathcliff and Cathy is better than the second - it's always jarring in a film that spans a long time fram to go from one actor to another playing the same character, especially when they don't look anything alike. I though this was most conspicuous with the two Cathies. Also, like most versions of the story, this one only took the Heathcliff/ Cathy affair and left out the later one between Hareton and Cathy Mk II. This means it's not a really satisfactorily plotted story, and the latter parts seem to just consist of Heathcliff wandering around being anguished. And as for the bizarre necrophiliac scene that turned up unexpectedly, well, I don't know where to begin on that one.