Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Frances O’Connor’s Emily opens at the SIFF Cinema Uptown this weekend. A quick thought here on that film, and then a reprint of my review of Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights, originally published in The Herald in 2012.
There’s a collection of films that attempt to jazz up English-lit classics into feistier, aggressively revisionist versions; two that seem relevant at the moment are Patricia Rozema’s 1999 film of Mansfield Park, a Jane Austen adaptation that darkened and up-fronted some of the politics behind the story (including the way money from the slave trade enriched the families at the center of the tale), and Andrea Arnold’s 2011 film of Wuthering Heights, which cast Heathcliff with a Black actor and foregrounded lust as a story driver (not that lust needed much foregrounding).
We can add to this group Emily, an extremely free fictionalization of Emily Brontë, the author of Wuthering Heights, presented here as a proto-beatnik adrift on the moors. This film is written and directed by Frances O’Connor, who played the lead in Mansfield Park, and it is a mostly foolish proposition, handsomely made, with a few inspired casting choices. Early on there’s a fascinating scene in which Charlotte Brontë (Alexandra Dowling) looks at her sickly sister and asks, “How did you write it?” The question is not meant admiringly; Charlotte is disgusted by the ugliness of Wuthering Heights, and her words are less a question than a reprimand, as so many questions are. We look forward, as the film flashes back, to learning an answer.
Alas, the answers are largely of the kind that suggest an author must draw from the literal stuff of her life, putting direct parallels into dutiful prose. As director, O’Connor lavishes a few too many adoring close-ups on Emma Mackey, who comes across as one of those impossibly glamorous Hollywood versions of a writer, even if this film is surely meant to be anti-Hollywood. Some scenes come to life with bright ideas (hearing a platitude about love, Emily responds with “Love?”, as though amused by the idea that this word must be at the heart of all the sexual tinkering she’s been up to), yet the movie regularly lapses into bodice-ripping. There may be loftier issues at play for our brooding heroine, but she’s also interested in a little hey-hey in the hayloft, rendered here in the heavy-breathing way you’d expect.
This is the main problem with Emily: once you know you’re getting a revisionist take on the Brontë world, the movie plays without surprises. What grates is the idea that this particular dark subject needed revising.
I feel for those well-meaning Downton Abbey fans who wander into a theater to see the new movie of Wuthering Heights, looking for a period classic with nice ruffled costumes and lovely teacups and the traditions of English literature.
Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel was never about those things, but we do tend to lump together the various pieces of the British literary tradition. In any case, director Andrea Arnold has taken up Wuthering Heights as a raw, feral tale of thwarted desire and class prejudice and blood. Travel here at your own risk.
It’s quite a movie: grimy, personal, full of the mud of the Yorkshire moors. On this moor sits the home of the Earnshaws, whose father impulsively takes in an orphan boy and calls him Heathcliff. You probably know the story from there: rough Heathcliff develops an intense friendship with Catherine, the Earnshaw daughter, and they carry this tempestuous relationship into adulthood, with dire consequences. Because Bronte’s novel shocked quite a few people when originally published, it may be appropriate that this movie version will startle unsuspecting moviegoers.
Andrea Arnold’s Red Road and Fish Tank marked her as a British filmmaker to be reckoned with, and not for the faint of heart. Those ground-level looks at the grittier side of modern life are consistent with Arnold’s take on Wuthering Heights, which emphasizes the damp moors and the hard transactions between human beings.
As the young Heathcliff and Cathy go riding, he stares at her hair blowing behind her; and when they arrive at an outcropping, they lie and listen to the roaring of the wind. This is how you convey ideas and feelings in movies, without relying on dialogue for a shortcut. These scenes are so vivid we never doubt the dark, profound link between Heathcliff and Cathy, even after things begin to go bad. This is powerfully conveyed, although it must be said that something changes in the film when the two young actors who play the lovers, Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer, are replaced by adult actors James Howson and Kaya Scodelario. The adults are fine, but we’ve really been on a journey with these two young orphans of the storm.
Along with her frankness, Arnold has goosed the material by casting black actors in the role of Heathcliff (the novel suggests that Heathcliff is not Caucasian). This is an interesting idea, although it would be a shame if it overshadowed the other bold decisions she’s made in this adaptation.
This is a movie that treats love and obsession as literally life-and-death issues, and doesn’t pull any punches in exploring that kind of passion. As harsh as Wuthering Heights is at times, I think Emily Bronte might have approved.
February 24, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.