It’s the stuff good debates are made of, and I honestly loathe which side I’ve come down on.
As you may remember, there are two Bronte adaptations coming across the moors and into our arthouse theaters. One is Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre, and the other is Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights. Two edgy and interesting directors tackling two classic (and in many people’s mind, stuffy) books — what could be better?
Arnold’s involvement had me alternately hopeful and skeptical. I seem to be one of the few who disliked Red Road, but there’s traits — a thoroughly unlikeable heroine, a chilly atmosphere, biting social commentary — that suggest she’ll get the dark, dirty, and violent elements that most adapters scrupulously avoid. It’s a love story, after all. The rape, necrophilia, and Victorian racism just don’t belong there.
But Arnold has made a startling stamp on the property. The Daily Mail unveiled her Heathcliff, an unknown actor named James Howson. That’s him in the upper right. As you can see, he’s not exactly a gypsy foundling.
I’m alternately impressed and frustrated by this. No one has ever cast Heathcliff correctly — they favor “tormented” Englishmen who are far too pale and pretty for the part. Don’t give me your Laurence Olivier or your Timothy Dalton. Ralph Fiennes? Please. Heathcliff is dark and swarthy. He’s of mysterious descent, alternately called a gypsy, a Spaniard, or Middle Eastern. Whatever he is, he’s different, and his foreign-infused blood causes everyone by Cathy and her father to loathe him on sight. Their intolerance seeps its way into Heathcliff, and he loathes himself. The poison of their disgust makes Heathcliff into the maniac he is, though the Victorian beliefs of the time imply it’s due to his “bad blood” and nothing could have ever been done to “tame” him.
Nevertheless, I feel like casting Howson takes it too far. It puts a modern stamp on Victorian cruelty, and while I can admire that, I also feel that you might want to modernize the entire thing. There was certainly a large black Victorian population in England, but if Heathcliff was of African descent (and it’s a popular theory in Bronte studies right now) I feel like this would have probably been underlined in bigger letters than “Eh, we thought he was a gypsy or a Slav.” I feel like casting an Indian or a Romanian in the part would have underlined racism more accurately to the story, and more ridiculously to a modern audience. Seeing the Victorians kick around someone who is “nearly” white makes you appreciate how far we’ve come, and how barbaric our behavior still is.
Normally, I admire productions for shaking up the paradigms. (I was on Team Glover for Spider-Man, after all.) But it runs the risk of being heavy handed, and I feel Arnold may have done that. Plus, considering the type of guy Heathcliff is — an unrepentant rapist, wife beater, and a thief — might you not be playing into some very popular stereotypes of black men? This isn’t Othello, after all. Heathcliff doesn’t redeem himself. He goes to his grave snarling and clawing. Literally.
It’s thorny. It’s worth debating. Regardless of my own feelings (and boy, am I wrestling with them), I’m very curious to see Howson in the film. It will be a Wuthering Heights worth watching. And I applaud Arnold for actually reading the book, making some notes, and not casting Daniel Radcliffe or one of the Twilight types.